Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW – Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
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13 Jul REVIEW – Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre

The curtain rises on Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman), a fledgling playwright, struggling with writer’s block in Elizabethan London. His latest work, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, is far from complete, but with the rights to this curiously-entitled play already sold, Will is forced to begin casting. Amongst a host of auditionees that are in equal parts incompetent, unappealing, and as talented as a tablespoon, Thomas Kent excels, positioning him as an ideal Romeo. Yet the Shakespeare that we know and love, the master of ironic subversion, is involved, so nothing is quite as it seems. Based on the Oscar and BAFTA award winning movie of the same name, Shakespeare in Love follows Will as he finally writes his play, with a little inspiration from Viola de Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen).

Currently previewing at the Noel Coward Theatre, the show itself boasts an immense cast of 28 actors and musicians, one of the largest ever assembled in the West End. An array of experienced Shakespearean actors and up-and-coming new talent, they excel under the direction of Declan Donnellan and are allowed to shine through the intelligently witty script.

Mark Norman and Tom Stoppard’s fantastic original screenplay is faithfully, but not lazily, translated onto the stage by Lee Hall (known for his adaptation of Billy Elliot). The result is every bit as witty and entertaining as the original, with a sense that “Shakespeare in Love” has come home to the theatre, rather than being adapted for it. It was striking how many different levels the humour touched, from almost slapstick, physical humour, through puns and innuendo to intellect-challenging comedy gymnastics drawing inspiration from every Shakespearean work, rewarding the more well-versed theatre-goers richly.

Chaotic with the essence of Elizabethan England, vibrant sights and sounds are muddled with elegance, humour and glorious music. Fabulous costumes, from beautifully intricate gowns glittering with precious stones, to roughly-hewn breeches, breathe life into the era. All of this is intensified through the outstanding set, an astute representation of Shakespeare’s contemporary Rose theatre, using 21st century touches in lighting and movement to provide an additional dimension.

Playing the two leads, Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen are exceptional, transformed into the bard and his lover with their flawless delivery of the iambic pentameter and sharp humour that characterise the script. In the moments of heightened emotion that punctuate the play, their compellingly convincing delivery sets them apart, particularly from the over-dramatisation we see so often on West End stages. Briggs-Owen shows herself to be an incredibly accomplished thespian, rising to the challenge of becoming one actress depicting another, in a play within a play. And the result is phenomenal.

As rival bard Marlowe, David Oakes proves himself to be a veritable luminary, his performance exquisitely nuanced, capturing his dry, sarcastic character with a careless charisma. Also noteworthy was the treat of having the musicians perform on stage, characters in their own right playing medieval instruments, another intoxicating touch inspired by history.

The running time is in the region of 3 hours, and despite being hugely entertaining, at moments it does feel that it goes on for a bit too long. This is compounded by the choice of the Noel Coward, where queueing for one of the three toilets takes the entire interval, leaving little to no time to get a drink, or to tell anyone of the opposite sex how much you’re enjoying it.

It definitely is a play to enjoy, to revel in, to laugh through. Masterful performances from all of the cast, beautifully simple staging and the splendid script transform it from being a comedy featuring, “a bit with a dog,” into one of the best plays in the West End.
If that wasn’t reason enough to get a ticket, the promise of Tom Bateman in tights has to be.

For tickets and information: