Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn in Jessica Swales' play at the West End's Apollo Theatre. © Helen Maybanks

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn in Jessica Swales’ play at the West End’s Apollo Theatre. © Helen Maybanks

The poster of Nell Gwynn shows a saucy, bare-shouldered Gemma Arterton and promises “fun, funny and joyous… a cast of 20! and a band… naughty songs… merry dances. And a dog!”

And Christopher Luscombe‘s lively production of Jessica Swale‘s bawdy, feminist, Restoration-style romp delivers every one of those items it advertises. It’s also the perfect vehicle to demonstrate that Gemma Arterton is the real deal, a stage actress of the highest order, with charisma by the bagful. And, for the record, the dog (Milly playing “Oliver Cromwell”) is adorable.

Also the superb “cast of 20”: David Sturzaker (as the King), Sarah Woodward (as the King’s spitting-mad Portuguese wife Queen Catherine and Nell’s gin-soaked mother), Sasha Waddell (as two of the King’s other mistresses), Jay Taylor (as Nell’s acting mentor and lover Charles Hart), Greg Haiste (as Edward Kynaston, who Nell Gwynn displaced as the playhouse’s female lead) and Michele Dotrice (as dresser and unwilling bit player Nancy).

The production is designed by Hugh Durrant and choreographed by Charlotte Broom, with infectiously catchy music by Nigel Hess (you’ll be humming “I can sing and I can dance” for ages afterward).

Happily, the critics agree with me on this one, with several five- and four-star raves today. I’ve gathered the overnight verdicts below, as well as recent interviews with Arterton.

Nell Gwynn runs at the West End’s Apollo Theatre until 30 April 2016.

Dominic Cavendish: This West End transfer is the sort of stellar event that sends ripples through the theatrical cosmos, says Dominic Cavendish
If the Restoration-era actress Nell Gwynn (1650-1687) was half as enchanting as Gemma Arterton makes her out to be in this gloriously funny and touching bio-drama, then it’s small wonder that Charles II became besotted with her… [Nell Gwynn] is a triumph for Shakespeare’s Globe and a breakthrough for its author Jessica Swale. But I think it may be best remembered as the moment that Arterton elbowed her way into the front rank of British actresses…. It’s impossible to adulate the whole cast, but mention must be made of Michelle Dotrice, pure comedy as Nell’s dresser, Sasha Waddell as a double-helping of rival mistresses, and Douglas Rintoul as the scheming Lord Arlington. Oh and little Milly, who almost steals the show as a cute spaniel called Oliver Cromwell. All in all, but finally down to the now A-list Arterton, this is a right royal treat. Go.
TIMES – ★★★★
Ann Treneman: Every play may aspire to be a truly ensemble effort, with everyone pulling their weight, but very few achieve it. This one, which gives us Nell Gwynn, perhaps our most famous tart with heart, played with a joyful naughty-but-niceness by Gemma Arterton, does. Every member of this cast is good, if not great. An absolute treat.
Michael Billington: It is tricky to transfer a play from the noisily interactive Shakespeare’s Globe to the politer environs of the West End. If Jessica Swale’s comedy survives the journey, it is for two reasons: because Gemma Arterton has a natural sparkle and because the play itself cannily mixes Carry On double-entendres with an explicitly feminist message.
Mark Shenton: Nell Gwynn is a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history… Gemma Arterton is ravishing in the title role, and she’s strongly supported…
Aleks Sierz: Arterton shines in the lead role, radiating an appealing pertness and broad knowingness that powers the show… Excelling when it is most shameless, this is a joyous example of popular theatre.
Emily Hardy: Shakespeare in Love meets Monty Python. Nell Gwynn’s remarkable Cinderella story has been given new life in Jessica Swale’s light-hearted, bawdy comedy, but it’s just crying out to be back at the atmospheric, open-air Globe…
Gemma Arterton: I’d love to take Nell Gwynn to Hollywood
Robert Dex: Gemma Arterton has taken on the title role in Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn following its move from the Globe to the West End and she is not ruling out playing the part again on the big screen…
Arterton on Nell Gwynn, class and the gender pay gap
Nick Curtis: “She’s great fun, witty and fresh and real: she sort of represents this new wave of feminism without being stampy and shouty. She says it how it is.” Gemma Arterton is describing Nell Gwynn…
Make-up free Arterton looks radiant after new play’s debut
Lucy Mapstone: It was the opening night of her new play. And Gemma Arterton looked the absolute picture of happiness as she emerged from the Apollo Theatre in London on Thursday, beaming happily…
Arterton: Great female blockbuster roles are rare
Naomi Gordon: Gemma Arterton has suggested that while there are some strong female roles in blockbuster movies, they’re rare. The 30-year-old actress has previously commented that big budget movies have…