This Auckland Theatre Company production of a 21st century Restoration comedy is a triumph of superb acting, design and wit.

UK playwright Jessica Swale uses the story of Nell Gwynn - an early actress turned royal mistress - to muse on the position of women and theatre itself (an escape from "wretched, drivel-filled lives").

Colin McColl's direction brings out much of the script's innate humour. Actors are "athletes of the imagination", intones delightful scene-stealer Byron Coll as pompous thespian Edward.

Hera Dunleavy's wardrobe mistress, unimpressed, squirts him with her spray bottle as if he were a sportsman or maybe she's just pouring on the cold water.

Advertisement

Featuring in almost every scene, Claire Chitham has the stamina, presence and cute-cheeky face to make for a believable bright-spark Nell. And it's lovely to see a large number of other familiar faces onstage - Mark Hadlow, Tim Balme, Alison Bruce, Andrew Grainger, Roy Ward as well as Coll and Dunleavy - and to relax in their collective excellence.

Rather than aiming for tight-laced historical accuracy, Elizabeth Whiting's wonderful costumes are 17th-century inspired; we get heaving bosoms, wide skirts and lace cuffs but also funky floral Doc Martens and edgy leather jackets and zips.

The raucous theatre crowd are wrapped in warm autumnal tones in contrast to the cooler, richer silver-and-black of the King's court. Rachael Walker's clean sets communicate with admirable comic efficiency: a metallic-coloured balloon dog shows Charles II's love of luxury, evoking both absurdity and Jeff Koons. Enhancing the theatre hall atmosphere, live incidental music is provided by violinist Charmian Keay and cast members.

The second half is sometimes darker but court intrigue is disappointingly sacrificed for a narrower, somewhat anachronistic focus on the king-mistress relationship. The play also pulls back from questioning the pros and cons of a woman giving up her life, career and people for a man.

Still, this is rich entertainment and fun is never far away. Recommended.

What: Nell Gwynn
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until August 30
Reviewer: Janet McAllister