Tag Archives: Jessica Swale

“Nell Gwynn” at the Apollo Theatre

Historical romps are not uncommon on the British stage. And the theatre loves referencing itself. Combining the two, with the story of 17th-century actress-turned-courtier Nell Gwynn, makes sense and provides a hit for playwright Jessica Swale. There’s plenty of fun from Gwynn’s love affair with King Charles II, while John Dryden’s hastily scribed plays add a touch of behind-the-scenes Noises Off style laughs. Having started at Shakespeare’s Globe, this show retains the venue’s vibe, pleasing the crowd with great gags and catchy tunes. No time for stuffiness here – this is a terrific night out.

Gemma Arterton’s performance in the title role is a joy. She’s cheeky, chirpy and utterly charming. Easily carrying Swale’s pointed remarks on women in the theatre and making the risqué comedy look effortless, Arterton proves a queen of innuendo. There are superb cameos from Sarah Woodward and Sasha Waddell as the other women in Charles’ life – both suitably overblown and over-painted – but the glorious Michele Dotrice steals every scene as Nell’s dresser, bringing the house down with a single salutation to the King and getting more laughs out of playing a triangle than you’d have thought possible.

Michele Dotrice
Michele Dotrice

There are men in the play, too and it’s satisfying that for once they take a back seat. Greg Haiste has the best lines as the actor who used to perform women’s roles before those “actor-esses” came along. And there’s a fine turn from David Sturzaker as Charles, who gracefully allows himself to be upstaged by a dog. The chemistry between the King and his mistress is down to the performances and builds touchingly. And yet it’s only fitting that the irresistible Arterton grabs our main attention. As for demanding better parts for women, condemning Shakespeare’s Juliet as a “noodle”, the play provides its own irrefutable answer.

David Sturzaker
David Sturzaker

A lot of Swale’s script should really be too downright silly to work. The comedy is as broad as a pantomime and historical references land with a bang that I presume is designed to pop any pomposity. More seriously, attempts to give the characters depth – let’s make the merry Monarch melancholy – are ham-fisted. Subtle it ain’t, but it works. And in spectacular fashion, with direction from Christopher Luscombe powering the play along and a series of performances that rocket the piece into the comic stratosphere.

Until 30 April 2016


Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Blue Stockings” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Education is, quite rightly, always a hot topic. While our own universities face many problems, even basic schooling is still denied to many around the world. With this in mind, Jessica Swale’s new play, Blue Stockings, which opened at the Globe Theatre last night, serves as a first-class tribute to those who fought for women to be able to graduate from Cambridge University.

On the brink of the 20th century, four young women and their tutors at Girton College are our heroines. Their determined pursuit of knowledge might have made them a little pious, but this is a jolly bunch, especially Tala Gouveia’s fur-clad, cosmopolitan Carolyn. What with that “modern miracle of engineering”, the bicycle, and that classic “French folk dance”, the Can-Can, there is plenty of fun to be had among all the inevitable (and occasionally portentous) discourses about the virtues of art versus science.

If £9,000 a year in fees puts some off university nowadays, the cost to these pioneers was different. Swale unfolds the price they paid gradually, and by the end we’re pretty hooked. The struggles of the college staff, played superbly by Gabrielle Lloyd and Sarah MacRae, and the sacrifice of ‘respectability’, is presented commendably. A disarmingly sweet love story for the lead role of Tess (wonderful Ellie Piercy) shows that a woman with an education was an isolated oddity, deemed a danger both to herself and to society. As the vote to allow women to graduate approaches, the tone darkens and events become disgracefully violent.

Appropriately enough, you’ll probably learn a lot from this play. These proto-feminists fight a tactical battle of ”patience and stealth”, forced to shun the suffrage cause in case it taints their demands. It’s only a shame that themes of class aren’t also developed, especially given a strong performance from Molly Logan as a poor scholar obliged to return home to look after her family. The play seems comfortable trapped in its period, using outrageous prejudices for comic effect; chaperoned silliness is performed well by Hilary Tones, but is overplayed.

Credit is given to the male tutors who taught at Girton (to the detriment of their own careers) but the many men in the piece otherwise come off poorly. And rightly so. Their two-dimensionality may be cartoonish but it serves a purpose — to enforce a connection with a contemporary audience. After all, Blue Stockings is also about the fight of an individual against the majority. The play graduates as a passionate plea for personal freedom, and its shocking conclusion shows just how long it has taken us to get where we are today.

Until 11 October 2013


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 30 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Bedlam” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Nell Leyshon, the first woman ever to write a play for The Globe, has chosen her subject well. A story set in Bedlam, drawn from research into the Bethlem Hospital, the first and foremost home for the insane. To give us a break from the bard, the action takes place in the 18th century, where the gin flows freely and visitors pay to view the unfortunate residents of the asylum. As an audience we both replicate this morbid tourism and double as the inmates ourselves. The idea is typical of Leyshon’s clever and careful use of the space. While her play could be madder at times, she has a shrewd eye and ear for what works well at The Globe.

Director Jessica Swale also knows how to use The Globe’s distinctive intimacy. Her talented ensemble is given reign to have great fun. Pity those poor Groundlings (the standing audience members) as they have chamber pots poured over them and are dragged on to the stage. You have been warned.

There’s a lot of laughs here and, if mixing humour and mental illness can be tricky, rest assured it is tastefully done. Jason Baughan is the man in charge – having inherited his post he is proud to come from a long line of Mad Doctors. Sam Crane is a poet, trying hard to be pale and interesting and full of machinations. They both make delicious villains. A pleasing amount of fantasy is used to resolve the neat storyline and deliver poetic justice. Predictable maybe, but satisfying.

Where Bedlam really takes off is with its music. Leyshon researched contemporary sources and, with Olly Fox’s composition and Mark Bousie’s musical direction, has added to her play enormously. Sentimental songs are used with restraint and some hilariously bawdy numbers beg an encore. James Lailey is cast as a ‘Bedlamite’, an inmate released to earn his living busking, and given a moving story with contemporary resonance. Alongside him Ella Smith’s Phyllis is the roaming wife of a Bedlam warder, selling gin on the street as if she were a procuress. Smith gives great value for money, delivering an irristible performance. When the rest of the cast join in the singing, Bedlam becomes very special indeed. Treat yourself to a listen, enjoy some uproar, and don’t forget the gin.

Until 1 October 2010


Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 10 September 2010 for The London Magazine