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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Shakespeare In Love
Noel Coward Theatre  2014-2015

There are things to enjoy in this stage version of the popular 1998 film, but almost all come from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Neither adaptor Lee Hall nor director Declan Donnellan have found inventive ways to transform it for the stage or much in the way of new comic material.

If you haven't seen the film you'll probably find the basic idea of Shakespeare's imagined personal life affecting his writing inventive and the many literary and theatrical in-jokes that accompany it amusing. If you have seem the film, you'll have to rely on the pleasures of deja vu as the jokes come around again. 

Film and play find Will Shakespeare wallowing in writer's block he can't decide what shall he compare thee to, and hasn't got much further than the title for Romeo And Ethel The Pirate's Daughter. (Those are about as good as the jokes get and, to be fair, they're from the film. Maybe they're not meant to be heard a second time.) 

Enter Lady Viola De Lesseps, a stage-struck noblewoman who dresses as a man in order to become an actor. She and Will fall in love, there's some comic gender confusion, his writer's block is broken, Ethel is replaced by Juliet, and if the lovers don't end up together we're stuck with that unfortunate fact of history something like a happy ending is reached.

It's all quite clever in a 'we know this never happened and that's why it's fun to imagine it' way, and there are lots of witty in-jokes taken bodily from the film (One assumes they're Stoppard's). 

Everyone quotes or half-quotes Shakespeare throughout there's a dog named Spot just so someone can chase him out and Will's pal Christopher Marlowe is constantly feeding him lines and plot ideas. 

The girl-disguised-as-a-boy plot itself is an echo of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, and the backstage subplots and name-dropping all offer little sparks of delight for those in the know. 

Director Declan Donnellan tries his best to keep things moving, filling the gaps between scenes with Elizabethan-sounding music by Paddy Cunneen and having as much movement as possible even set-changing turned into dance choreographed, along with a couple of actual dance sequences, by Jane Gibson. 

But what bounced along merrily enough in the film too often plods wearily here, the spaces between the jokes growing longer as the evening progresses and the romantic plot never involving us enough to take their place. 

Tom Bateman plays Will as an amiable dolt, the sort of character Owen Wilson or Vince Vaughan would play in a movie, with not the slightest hint that the man is capable of being a playwright, a poet, an actor or a romantic lead. 

Lucy Briggs-Owen is lovely, but as the supposed inspiration for Rosalind and Viola and even Juliet she would need to show more personality and spunk rather than playing her as a starry-eyed teenager. 

David Oakes as a confident and invention-rich Marlowe is more convincing than Bateman as both poet and romantic figure, Paul Chahidi is amusing as the alternately panicking and optimistic Henslowe, and Anna Carteret is wheeled on for three very brief scenes as the Queen but doesn't steal them as thoroughly as Judi Dench did in the film.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Shakespeare In Love - Noel Coward Theatre 2014 

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