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Shakespeare in Love

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Declan Donnellan’s stage adaptation of the Oscar-laden 1998 film – in which Judi Dench famously acquired a best supporting actress award for her eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth I – is carried by its not inconsiderable charms.

Given that Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay was essentially a love letter to the theatre, there’s a definite case to be made for transferring it to the stage and Lee Hall’s version is faithful to the original, retaining its playfulness and wit, while playing up its theatrical potential.

Tom Bateman’s genial, writers’ block-beset Will Shakespeare falls dizzyingly, giddily in love with Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Viola De Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant with a passion for the theatre so deep she decides to disguise herself as a man, complete with breeches and wig, in order to join Shakespeare’s company of players and speak the verse which has so moved her.

They’re both amiable performers – Bateman in particular is a charismatic lead, and there’s a real sense of chemistry between the two of them – but the main strength of Hall’s adaptation is in the way he peoples the stage, building up the supporting characters, particularly David Oakes’s Kit Marlow. His relationship with Will has been given more room to breathe here and Oakes and Bateman have a warm, engaging rapport; the production sags in his absence.

Alistair Petrie, as the dastardly Duke who wants to whisk Viola off to Virginia, is much more boo-hiss than his screen incarnation while Anna Carteret is suitably formidable as the Queen. Elsewhere, there’s some very broad playing on display – including a spectacular bit of scenery-eating by Colin Ryan as the young John Webster – but while some of this works in context, some of it is jarring.

The versatile tiered, wooden set, designed by Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl co-director Nick Ormerod, echoes the Globe theatre, an effect enhanced by the use of Elizabethan music by Paddy Cunneen and the choreography of Jane Gibson. The production is lavishly costumed and there are some cracking comic set-pieces, well timed and well played, but while there’s much here to enjoy there are also occasions when it feels padded out and repetitious, adhering rather too closely to its source material – the joke about Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter wasn’t that funny the first time around and wears decidedly thin after the 10th telling. While things eventually click and it does hit its stride, it takes too long warming up and even then the whole thing feels a bit constrained within a traditional West End space, as if geared up for a groundling crowd. The bit with the dog though, that goes down a treat.

Natasha Tripney

  • Noel Coward Theatre, London
  • July 2-October 25, PN July 23
  • Author: Lee Hall adaptation, Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard screenplay
  • Director: Declan Donnellan
  • Design: Nick Ormerod sets, Neil Austin lighting, Simon Baker sound
  • Technical: Paddy Cunneen music, Jane Gibson choreography, Gary Beestone production manager, Siobhan Bracke casting, Terry King fight director
  • Cast includes: Tom Bateman, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Anna Carteret, Paul Chahidi, Abigail McKern, David Oakes, Alistair Petrie, Doug Rao, Ferdy Roberts
  • Producers: Disney Theatrical Productions, Sonia Friedman Productions
  • Running time: 2hrs 45mins

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The Stage
The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.