Though I love Shakespeare at the Globe, I also enjoy seeing the new plays they put on each year, and in fact Nell Gwynn – the new work by Jessica Swale about the famous mistress of King Charles II – is my favourite Globe show of the year. It tells the story of Nell as she, an orange seller and former prostitute, turns to the theatre and becomes one of the most popular actors of the age, before meeting the rakish, theatre-loving Charles and – to her surprise – falling in love with him.
This play needs a strong central performance to succeed, and it certainly has it, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw utterly wonderful as Nell. She captures her spirit and her spark, her love for acting and her love for Charles. The supporting cast also do an excellent job – I loved Amanda Lawrence as theatre dresser Nancy (her facial expressions are a joy) and Graham Butler is superb as the eternally put-upon author John Dryden. Another favourite is Greg Haiste as Edward Kynaston, an actor specialising in female roles who isn’t too happy about the prospect of an actual woman taking work away from him.
It isn’t just the cast who make this play so thoroughly enjoyable: it is witty, charming and sympathetic, open in its love for theatre. It conveys the spirit of the time while maintaining a nod to modernity: Charles’s declaration that the arts are deserving of funding gets the biggest cheer of the play. The Globe is the perfect venue for this show, with its raucous tone and bawdy humour ideal for this open air space.
Nell Gwynn will transfer to the Apollo Theatre in 2016 with Gemma Arterton in the title role. While I’m sorry to see that Gugu Mbatha-Raw is no longer starring, I’m sure Arterton will do an excellent job and I’m glad that this fabulous play is having a longer life.