Nell Gwynn (Shakespeare's Globe)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a 'remarkable performance' as the Globe's summer season draws to a close
While the National revives Our Country's Good, that 18th-century rage against 20th-century Toryism, a short stroll downriver Shakespeare's Globe is closing its season with a new history play about historical players. But Nell Gwynn isn't saddled by any dour, redemptive-power-of-theatre rhetoric; it's a celebration of the stage for its own sake, and a riotous end-of-term romp.
Our heroine, you'll recall, was a reformed prostitute turned orange seller turned actress turned king's mistress. As career arcs go, it'll do. Playwright Jessica Swale may not mess about too much with this tract of history but she has a blast putting it across to a modern audience through a text that breaks the fourth wall and has a good kick at the other three as well. "Playhouses are a valuable national asset" declares Charles II, less to David Rintoul's sceptical Lord Arlington than to the cheering groundlings. "Down with austerity!".
Borderline crass though it is on occasion, the script projects feminism with a light touch and can-do optimism with relish. There's a high proportion of losers among the men here, from Graham Butler's brain-blocked John Dryden to Greg Haiste's anachronistic method actor; but why not? This is Nell's story, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw spins it with charm and talent to spare. Hers is a remarkable performance: she charts Nell's growth from blowsy street girl ("I swapped selling my oyster for my oranges") to courtly lady without losing an iota of the character's essence along the way.
At least her lovers prove worthy of her. Jay Taylor's leading actor Charles Hart is the sympathetic recruiting officer who brings Nell to the stage, and David Sturzaker paints an exceptionally human – and humane – King Charles, complete (this being the Globe) with a cameo appearance by a namesake spaniel. All three of these central actors lift the play a couple of rungs above its intrinsic worth, as does Amanda Lawrence in her scene-stealing turn as Nancy, Nell's confused old dresser. The play's wily director, Christopher Luscombe, extends one of the latter's silent comic moments way beyond breaking point until it becomes funny all over again.
While the first act is a beautifully constructed comedy, after the interval Swale struggles with the need to weave a nasty street assault and a pair of unwelcome deaths into her narrative. The mood swings at such moments misfire because they play against the prevailing tone of fun that's been so carefully established. But sour notes aren't dwelt upon, and composer Nigel Hess is never far away with a clutch of Globe-friendly songs to restore the tang of citrus sweetness.
Nell Gwynn runs at the Globe until 17 October.