Original Screenplay: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Stage Adaptation: Lee Hall
Director: Declan Donnellan
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Undeterred by recent flops, the trend for transferring successful films to the London stage goes on. However, in view of its subject, perhaps this one should be regarded as more of ahomecoming than a transfer. Lee Hall has adapted the 1998 film, a rollicking romantic-comedy, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay forits writers, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. With a pedigree like this, the quality of the source material could never be in doubt, but the question that still needs to be answered is: what does the experience of live theatre add to it?
The story has only a loose connection to documented facts, but this is not a show to please scholars, it is here to entertain us. Will Shakespeare meets Viola when she auditions for a part in his new play and, as women were forbidden to appear on the Elizabethan stage, she is disguised as a man. The couple fall in love and Viola becomes the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, but their relationship seems doomed, because she is shortly to enter into a forced marriage to the dastardly Wessex.
At a single glance, Nick Ormerod’s magnificent set tells us that this show is going to be a feast for the eye. On three levels and resembling the interior of a Tudor Palace, it features balconies, elevated wooden walkways and a centre section that moves backwards and forwards to suit each scene, whether it be in the Queen’s court, a small bedroom or a theatre. Sumptuous costumes, warmly glowing lighting and a cast of 30 all add to the spectacle. Leaving aside musicals, it is difficult to think of the last time when a commercial production was staged so lavishly.
The show has most of the ingredients to make a big musical, it looks like one and it plays like one, so all that is missing is the songs. Fleeting appearances by a troop of minstrels serve only to whet the appetite, but songs could have enlivened several over long scenes which begin to plod wearily and they could have smoothed out the transitions between frivolity and romance at times when the balance of the two becomes unsteady.
Many of the one-line gags from the film, mischievously mocking Shakespeare and his contemporaries, survive in Hall’s adaptation, but his problem is that the people most likely to get theatrical in-jokes are also the people most likely to have heard these particular jokes before. This could explain why the loudest laughs come from topical additions, like Viola blaming her late arrival at rehearsals on a snarl up under Putney Bridge. Declan Donnellan’s slick and confident direction also scores with some neat visual gags, as when Will removes Viola’s false moustache very deliberately and hands it to a servant, before beginning to make love to her.
Tom Bateman makes a dashing romantic hero and we have no problem believing that his Will would suffer from writers’ block or rely on Christopher Marlowe’s prompts to find the words to woo Viola. However, he is less successful in convincing us that this is the greatest playwright who ever lived. Viola needs to be both an adventurous tomboy and an alluring seductress and Lucy Briggs-Owen assumes both guises effortlessly.
Alistair Petrie is a little too much of a pantomime villain as Wessex, seemingly aiming for hisses every time he makes an entrance, but there are a host of excellent character performances, most notably from Paul Chahidi as Henslowe, David Ganly as Burbage and Abigail McKern as Nurse. Anna Carteret is a knowing and sarcastic Elizabeth I and, by no means least, Barney shows impeccable timing in the pivotal rôle of Spot the dog.
Finally, after the curtain calls, we are allowed a glimpse of the musical that this show is aching to become from the very beginning, as the entire company bursts into song and dances a merry jig. They round off an entertaining evening and send us home happy, but they also direct our minds to thoughts of what might have been.
Currently booking until 25th October