Writer: Lea Hall, adapted from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Director: Phillip Breen
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Up-and-coming Elizabethan playwright Will Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) is in the grip of a bad case of writer’s block and is struggling to come up with a plot for what he hopes will be his next big hit, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. What he needs – apart from the occasional nudge in the right direction from friend and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley) – is a muse. Enter the lovely, spirited and totally stagestruck Viola de Lesseps (Imogen Daines). Unfortunately, her father’s already agreed to hand her over into a loveless marriage with the thoroughly rotten Lord Wessex (Bill Ward). She’s also carrying on a secret life as a boy actor; in fact, she’s just landed the role of Romeo in Will’s not just unfinished but actually unstarted masterpiece. It’s the sort of convoluted set-up Shakespeare himself might have come up with…but let’s leave that thought there for the moment.
Shakespeare in Love has of course already been a massive hit as a film, including Oscars for Best Picture and for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Best Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, Lee Hall has a pretty decent track record when it comes to adaptations. Everything points to what should be a triumph in every respect, but how close does it actually get?
Well, there’s no disputing that it’s very well acted and hugely entertaining, cleverly and wittily written, impressively staged and more than capably directed. It’s a proper crowd-pleaser. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy ticking off the quotes shoe-horned into the script. And there are some splendidly choreographed set pieces, most notably the rehearsal of the Tybalt/Mercutio fight scene and the battle between the Henslowe and Burbidge camps over Will’s script.
Of the cast, Pierro Niel-Mee and Imogen Daines as Will and Viola are attractive and charming and do everything that can be expected without actually breaking beyond, Ian Hughes does a decent comic turn as hapless impresario Henslowe, Edmund Kingsley is a suitably cocky Marlowe and Geraldine Alexander clearly enjoys having the opportunity to play Queen Elizabeth. The best laughs, though, come from Rowan Polonski as the ever-so-theatrical Ned Alleyn, entering proceedings with a flourish redolent of Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart.
Unfortunately, it all somehow falls short of adding up to the sum of its parts.
The trouble is that by setting itself up as a Shakespearean comedy, what it mainly demonstrates is that it’s not as good at doing it as Shakespeare was. It’s just that bit too clinical, ticking a few too many boxes en route to its conclusion. By setting such a high bar, the failure to reach it makes that shortfall stand out all the more.
None of which should be taken to mean that it’s not good. It is good. It can even be heartily recommended. It’s just not quite as good as it clearly thinks it is. And there isn’t even a dog.
Runs Until 20 October and on tour | Image: Pete le May