Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Theatre review: Shakespeare in Love

Déjà vu at the Noël Coward Theatre, where six months after The Full Monty another screen-to-stage adaptation opens. Whether it'll fare any better is yet to be seen, but for now crowds seem keen to get in to Shakespeare in Love. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's film script has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, but the story is still one that places the world's best-loved playwright in a plot straight out of his own comedies: Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) is having writer's block after a few early successes, until he meets a new muse in noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen,) who's already madly in love with his poetry before she's even met him. But he's married, and she's about to be married off too, so it seems unlikely they'll be able to find a happy ending together.

At the same time Viola's love for theatre is frustrated by the fact that women aren't allowed on stage. Disguising herself as a boy, she lands the role of Romeo in Shakespeare's new comedy Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, in the process inspiring him to turn it into quite a different play.

Declan Donnellan directs, which made me hope he'd inject a Cheek By Jowl-style unusual angle into the production that would give it a personality distinct from the film. But while solid and, for the most part, well-acted, this turns out to be pretty standard West End fare with few surprises. Nick Ormerod's set seems to have taken inspiration from both Shakespeare's Globe and the Swanamaker to feel suitable both when representing an outdoor playhouse and Elizabeth I's court; but it does often push the action very far downstage, undoing the good sightlines from the Noël Coward's Balcony.

There's no big names in the production but plenty of familiar stage faces who add value: Paul Chahidi gives good panic as the producer hoping Romeo and Ethel will solve his debt problems, Ferdy Roberts' moneylender Fennyman goes from bully to rapturous theatre fan, David Ganly channels Brian Blessed as he booms his way through Burbage, and David Oakes' Marlowe is an appealing sidekick to Shakespeare. It's nice to see that one of the few things I liked about a disappointing drama school Kitchen Sink a few months ago, Sandy Murray, has got a job immediately on graduation, even if he's mainly required to bafflingly jig across the stage every so often as if he's auditioning for next year's Globe season. But Tony Bell's rather wasted in the small role of Ralph, who's pretty much there to look funny in a dress, playing Juliet's Nurse.

A couple of roles have been expanded from the film - Anna Carteret's Queen Elizabeth seems to get a bit more to do than I recall, and Colin Ryan's John Webster has gone from a punchline to a recurring, creepy character. Although the fact that this punchline's been moved to the second act is a weird choice, given it's simply his identity, something the audience would have had plenty of time to look up in the cast list in the interval. This supporting cast is great, but the trouble is they really need to be, to make up for the vast imbalance between the two leads.

Lucy Briggs-Owen has always been an appealing stage presence and is perfectly cast as Viola, a character imagined as inspiration and prototype for Shakespeare's most memorable female characters. But if Tom Bateman's attractions are apparent in the photo above, they've never been so on stage, at least not to me1. He's on stage most of the time but it's astonishingly easy to forget he's there; it's a good job the story sees Viola falling in love with the words before the man, as he doesn't demonstrate any reason why someone with as much life as her would notice him. That aside, Ben, who hadn't seen the film and actually wasn't 100% sure going in that this even was based on a film, really enjoyed the story. For me, I really did end up with Full Monty déjà vu as I was once again left feeling that there wasn't really enough here to justify seeing the play rather than just renting the film.

Shakespeare in Love by Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, is booking until the 25th of October at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

1it's not just me though; after the show I got into a Twitter conversation over whether Bateman can rightly be described as a charisma vacuum. I think technically no, because he doesn't actually seem to make the rest of the cast less charismatic just by standing next to them2.

2like Oliver Thornton did in Rent Remixed

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