Review: Shakespeare in Love (Theatre Royal Bath)
The stage version of the classic film embarks on a UK tour
If the film Shakespeare In Love was a massive success (including winning Judi Dench an Oscar for an astonishingly short seven minutes of screen time), then it's pleasing to say its myriad charms work even better upon the stage. This should come as no surprise, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's original work is after all a paean to the theatrical life, a celebration of the 'show must go on', even as commissions are late, the actors prove not much cop, and moneyed Lords try to censor what should go on in the playhouses. The original screenplay was full of inside theatrical jokes and classical allusions and Lee Hall's adaptation for the stage ensures all the hits are still there.
Its plot is as bonkers as many of Shakespeare's comedies; Will is suffering from writer's block as he tries to come up with the storyline for his latest hoped-for blockbuster, Romeo and Ethel The Pirate's Daughter. One night at a ball he falls in love with the lady Viola de Lesseps, who is already engaged to be wed to the rich, powerful and dangerous Lord Wessex. If this complication wasn't enough, Viola also has a secret life, dressing up as a boy actor in the company and she finds herself cast in the crucial role of Romeo.
It's a work that incorporates a little bit of everything from romance to comedy, sword fights to some technically impressive verse speaking and Phillip Breen's production plays it broadly and to the hilt. His concept is play it to the back of the house, and if this means that, from the centre stalls viewpoint, some of the performances seem over-mannered and lacking in specificity, it feels much in keeping with the acting style of the day. Max Jones' Elizabethan playhouse set revolves effectively into ballrooms and bedchambers and provides a Noises Off backstage tour-de-force moment as a prompt script is tossed to-and-fro as Romeo and Juliet play in the background.
As Shakespeare, Pierro Niel-Mee plays the young romantic, looking to turn promise into legend. Like his protagonist, his falling in love turns the boy into man. Imogen Daines as Viola is terrific, both as woman and man her erotic frisson is undeniable, as she sets her sight on her twin passions of lover and the stage. She speaks the verse with intelligence and a lightness of touch that will presumably put her on the path of playing Shakespeare's heroines on our biggest stages.
If that wasn't enough there is a second strand to the story in the relationship between the boy from Stratford and the boy from Canterbury, Kit Marlowe. Will was the Sebastian Vettel to Marlowe's Lewis Hamilton, always slightly in his rear-view mirror as Marlowe dazzled the London stage again and again. Edmund Kingsley gives Marlowe a swaggering energy that contrasts well with Will's more hesitant confidence, and there is a moment reminiscent of Cyrano feeding Christian his words as slick Kit helps Will woo Viola. It's only in Marlowe's death that Shakespeare fully finds his voice. Would he go on, the work questions, to compose Hamlet and Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night if Marlowe had not been killed in a bar brawl? It's enough to make you mourn the works we might have seen even if it gives you reason to cheer what Shakespeare became.
There are fun turns from Bill Ward as a hissable villain, Rowan Polonski as a swaggering, leather trouser-clad leading actor Ned Alleyn and Rob Edwards' Fennyman, who starts the play torturing a character for owed money and ends it a stage-struck thespian, reciting his lines repeatedly. Shakespeare in Love is a cracking love letter to theatre itself and strikes gold in its stage version. It's sure to be a staple hit for years to come.