It seems that the West End has a little infatuation at present. Nearly every major musical to debut in recent years seems to have been adapted from a previous incarnation, most often movies. But it has been less so for plays. Enter Shakespeare in Love the Play centre stage.
The new stage adaption is brought to us by Sonia Freidman Productions and Disney Theatrical Productions and is based on the 1998 movie by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. It tells the fictional story of William Shakespeare as he suffers writers block and is unable to write again until he finds his muse. The play charts his love for the unobtainable Viola De Lesseps which in turn helps him begins to write his latest play “Romeo and Ethel the Pirates Daughter”.
I have to admit, I was worried. How on earth could one of the best British comedies of the 90s be translated on to the stage and keep its warmth, charm and more importantly, humour? The film won 7 Oscars and huge critical acclaim. The help, Disney and Friedman turned to the watchful eye of Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan. He has spent many years with his own company reinventing Shakespeare. There was surely no one else more qualified than to bring this to the stage? His appointment was a stroke of genius as he masterfully recreates Elizabethan London with the flourish it so richly deserves. Lee Hall’s script equally retains much of the film’s witty dialogue whilst also translating it to the stage and allowing a good few Shakespeare “in jokes” for those that will get them. The script cleverly intertwines Shakespearean prose with Hall’s own understanding of the language. There were times when I wasn’t sure which was his and which was Shakespeare’s. It is Hall’s use of language that really gives the play it’s heart and it humour. It shows what a versatile playwright he is, and one the country should cherish.
The play brings several rarities to the West End. A Shakespeare play about Shakespeare, not written by him and the largest cast currently on the West End stage. It is also one of the best examples of the use of the ensemble I’ve seen for some time. There is often so much happening on stage that you need to view the play several times to take it in. It is the pieces simplistic settings that are a really joy. The way a tavern can be created from planks of wood and a scene set in a riverboat that is brilliantly inventive but simple. It is these cleverly thought out production designs by Nick Omerod that gives the overall feel of the play. The whole piece marries together sumptuous costumes, stunningly simple set, outstanding acting and wonderful Elizabethan music to create the best British comedies since One Man, Two Guvnors.
With such a stunning ensemble, it seems almost unfair to pick out individual performances. Lucy Briggs-Owen’s wonderful ability to create Viola and Thomas was astounding. Her facial expression alone could bring laughter to the whole theatre. Tom Bateman also brought a steady Shakespeare that seemed to purvey his anguish far more than Joseph Fiennes’ ever did in the movie. But, for me the performance of the evening goes to Colin Ryan whose Webster had me captivated at times when I should really have been following the main action.
In short, a stunning new addition to the West End that will make a thoroughly enjoyable evening for those looking for something different to everything else on offer.