Writers of the screenplay: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for stage by: Lee Hall
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Director: Claire Lewis
Bringing another outstanding production to the stage, Brighton Little Theatre breathe new life into this old favourite. Shakespeare in Love originally captured our hearts in 1998 when a screen play written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard made for a highly successful motion picture with an all star cast. This stage adaptation by Lee Hall, has been lovingly brought into being by director Claire Lewis and a sizeable team, capturing the essence of the film while bestowing unto it the signature flourish of Brighton Little Theatre magic. With a picnic at your side, it makes for a truly delightful way to spend a sunny August afternoon. Laughs are aplenty as the cheeky nods to the Shakespearean canon come thick and fast.
We open with Will Shakespeare (Lewis Todhunter) at his writing desk. The robust number of cast members crowd around waiting for inspiration to strike, only it seems Will is having some trouble getting going. Luckily his friend Kit Marlowe is around to lend a hand. The relationship between Shakespeare (Todhunter) and Marlowe (Michael Grant) is a highly enjoyable aspect of this performance, as is that between Viola de Lesseps (Melissa Paris) and her nurse, played with beautiful comic timing by Emma Spencer. The scene where Marlowe and Shakespeare make their way through the audience to woe Viola at her balcony is a real highlight of the show.
There are however lots of wonderful moments to be enjoyed as Shakespeare (Todhunter) falls for the poetry obsessed Viola de Lesseps (Paris), while attempting to develop ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirates Daughter’ for the stage. Samuel Masters brings an exuberant energy to the role of celebrated actor Ned Alleyn. His entrance is not to be missed. The way Masters balances his character’s ego with his honour is expertly done. Richard Fisher moves the sadistic, ‘money man’ Fennyman on a satisfying journey from thug to thespian. It’s also safe to say that Mollie the dog makes a triumphant theatrical debut.
In a cast this large it’s hard to comment on every excellent performance. Oliver Russell plays a suitably despicable Lord Wessex, Arlo Giles-Buabasah a cheeky John Webster and Nikki Dunsford a dazzling Queen Elizabeth I with both a manner and gown that commands our attention. There are many a sumptuous costume on display and the overall wardrobe gives us all the Shakespearean vibes we crave.
Lewis Todhunter makes an inspired Will Shakespeare we can both root for and also feel somewhat exasperated by, especially as he fails to fully appreciate his friend Kit Marlowe (Grant). Shakespeare is the conceited, deceptive, chancer that wins us around, as he does Viola de Lesseps, with his words and wits. Melissa Paris expertly portrays Viola, embodying perfectly also her alter ego Thomas Kent. Together Todhunter (Shakespeare) and Paris (Viola de Lesseps) create a love affair that Lord Wessex (Russel) would lose money over.
This polished and professional production makes full use of the expansive Brighton Open Air Theatre stage, parts of the audience, and sometimes the audience themselves. The set is essentially comprised of three door-like frames from which curtains are suspended. An array of wooden boxes on hinges are also used dynamically to create different environments. Towards the final curtain, the way the players flow back and forth from behind the scenes to the stage is inspired. Watching the players manipulate the set is a form of satisfying dance in itself.
If their last production, Brontë, was anything to go by, it wouldn’t be Brighton Little Theatre without the dancing. Most interludes of movement and song in this performance feel in keeping with Shakespearean proceedings. However, a couple of them are a bit harder to fathom why they’ve been included. One such scene occurs when Viola (Paris) is reading Will’s words while some interpretive dancing takes place down stage. It’s not quite clear what the message being conveyed is or the link between the two but it’s a tiny drop of confusion in an otherwise sea of superb theatre.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet to express the follies of young impetuous love; this tale flips the joke to land on him and also stands as a lovingly cheeky homage to his best works. Brighton Little Theatre’s Shakespeare in Love is highly recommended for those that adore Shakespeare, and also those who could do with a giggle at the bard’s expense. Unarguably, Queen Elizabeth I would rule this production worthy of the word love.
Reviewed on 19th August 2023