Nell Gwynn (Apollo Theatre)

Gemma Arterton stars in the West End transfer of Jessica Swale’s new play

Nell Gwynn? Shoe-in. Transferring to the West End from Shakespeare’s Globe, Jessica Swale‘s comic reclamation of the Restoration stage star and royal mistress is a failsafe bet. A romp with a point to make, it pulls off a tricky balancing act, mixing Carry On-style gags with a forthright feminist message. It’s down to Gemma Arterton, taking over the title role from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to sell such lighthearted, lightweight fare and she does so winningly, with just the right blend of charm and cheek.

Swale’s bioplay is unapologetic in kicking factual accuracy into touch. Fun triumphs every time. Gwynn gets a neat rags-to-riches, girl-done-good narrative. But the trick is that we’re rooting for her throughout, from the moment she gives up hawking oranges stageside for an impromptu turn in front of the footlights at Drury Lane, all the way through to her ill-fated affair with King Charles II. That you forgive her forgetting her roots, leaving her gin-soaked mother and impoverished sister to struggle by on Cheapside, is a measure of the airbrushing Swale’s done. Gwynn becomes nothing less than a feminist icon – even as she accepts the luxuries of a royal mistress.

With "actor-esses" on stage for the first time, she’s more than just a star turn. She’s a campaigning spirit, a stage sufferagette come 200 years early. Not only does Nell refuse to become to a "tupenny peepshow" act, she rejects the most canonical female roles, all naively written by men. "Juliet," she huffs adamantly, "is a noodle."

It’s a very contemporary debate, echoed by the recent Twitter feed listing limp female roles in Hollywood scripts, and it’s smart of Swale to treat it so saucily. The two could so easily cancel one another out, smut and sisterhood. Instead, they take the edge off each other. Swale’s play seems to tut at its own cheek, at the same time as it scoffs away any earnestness. Arterton plays the balance gamely, just shy of flirting with her audience. With every double entendre she gives us a look that’s very nearly schoolmarmish.

Christopher Luscombe‘s production catches both the strangeness and the sincerity of the Restoration stage, with demonstrations of how to strike the attitudes or talk with one’s fan that are both insightful and amusing. Jay Taylor is a striking leading man as Charles Hart, dropped when David Sturzaker’s King comes knocking, and Greg Haiste instils oodles of comic glee as the troupe’s resident female impersonator, desperate not to be replaced by the real deal.

Hugh Durrant’s luscious designs, his opulent lacey costumes and fuzzy spaniel wigs, push for lavish spectacle, but Swale’s play never really convinces you of theatre’s necessity. It’s fun, albeit over-familiar, but it's featherweight.

Nell Gwynn runs at the Apollo Theatre until 30 April.