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Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare’s Globe

Published by: Clare Brotherwood on 26th Sep 2015 | View all blogs by Clare Brotherwood

Jessica Swale’s new play, which has already won an award, is a delight for any theatregoer.

For not only does it have Gugu Mbatha-Raw leading a stellar cast as a ground-breaking actress, but it is also largely set in a theatre company, with all that fascinatingly entails, or at the court of a King of England who was doing all he could to revive the theatre. God bless him!

As with every Globe production, Nell Gwynn is sumptuously dressed and beautifully choreographed (by Charlotte Broom), with sublime music (this time composed by Nigel Hess) played under the direction of Emily Baines.

And although the king’s mistress ultimately acted at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, director Christopher Luscombe uses the Globe’s unique space to advantage, with hecklers among the groundlings setting the scene.

It is from the audience that Mbatha-Raw makes her entrance as Nell Gwynn, selling her oranges and starting a lively repartee with the actors on stage, an aspect of her personality which later attracts Charles II.

Mbatha-Raw, who won the 2014 BIFA Award for Best Actress for her lead role in the film Belle, will be memorable for this portrayal: bright, vivacious, quick, witty, and totally at home whether it’s singing, dancing or acting, she shines as a real life Cinderella.

But hers is not the only compelling performance. Amanda Lawrence was cheered at one point the night I was there for her comic portrayal of Nell’s dresser and confidante Nancy, while Sarah Woodward, who, as both Queen Catherine and Nell’s wayward mother, plays little more than cameo roles but steals her scenes. As Old Ma Gwynn she makes The Lady in the Van appear quite bland while, as the queen, she strikes fear into the entire theatre - if she ever wanted to, she could do panto for life playing the villain!

David Rintoul also sends shivers down the spin as the king’s advisor, but empathy must be felt for Edward Kynaston who, until the arrival of Nell, had always played the women’s parts. In the hands of Greg Haiste he is waspish, jealous and neurotic and yet he inspires sympathy.

As with all Restoration comedy - for that is what this is - this play is a rollicking good romp. It also charts the beginning of ‘actor-esses’ and how an orange seller from Cheapside uses her femininity and quick wit to become Charles II’s mistress. Once that happens her time with him until his death is dismissed in an instant.


Nell Gwynn has now transferred to the Apollo Theatre with Gemma Arterton in the title role. Booking until April 30.



  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 2 years ago
    Thanks, Clare. A lovely review.
  • Elaine Pinkus
    by Elaine Pinkus 2 years ago
    Saw this a while ago and absolutely loved it. I agree - Amanda Lawrence won the hearts of the audience as did Mbatha-Raw. A fabulous production.
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