Shakespeare in Love (Disney Theatrical Productions/Sonia Friedman Productions) @ The Noël Coward Theatre

It’s important to acknowledge when you’re reviewing a West End preview. I’m less concerned about the frankly old-fashioned etiquette of waiting for press night (as far as I’m concerned, if people are paying money to see it, it’s fair game) than I am about the fact that company and directors are still trying things out, and right or wrong, the production can simply feel rough. Yet it was difficult to tell with this preview matinee of Shakespeare in Love whether the preview jitters were restricted to the obvious fluffed lines and missed cues, or whether this production’s stilted, artificial edges will also be smoothed out.

On paper, the production looked extremely promising. Cheek by Jowl directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod headed up the creative team, and the cast was an Expendables-style superteam of extraordinary renaissance comedians: Filter’s Ferdy Roberts, Propeller’s Tony Bell, the Globe’s Paul Chahidi, and even a dog.The film screams to be realised in the theatre, and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s witty original script pitches perfectly at a general audience while sprinkling in-jokes liberally for the scholars. Yet despite these mouth-watering agreements, the play simply didn’t come together.

Most of the blame needs to be placed on Lee Hall’s lazy adaptation. When writing new material the play took off. The emphasis on a love of acting was much stronger here, almost displacing the love story as Viola’s passion for the stage caused her several times to walk right past Will. The closing unpacking of the plot of the to-be-written Twelfth Night made much more sense of the play’s conclusion as Will showed retrospectively how several of the play’s characters were informed by his fellows in the Romeo company, and the beefing up of Shakespeare quotes throughout (including a final ‘I’ll be revenged!’ from Ian Bartholomew’s dastardly Tilney) was a great cause of laughter. Romeo and Juliet itself was played out at much greater length than in the film, giving the cast great opportunity to show their flexibility including in a marvellous fight between Henslowe and Burbage’s men in which the actors continued to rehearse Mercutio’s death scene.

But too often, the play simply defaulted to a sightseeing tour of the best quotes from the film, speeding through the stripped down scenes and reeling off the memorable lines. In doing so, the play couldn’t help but invite unfavourable comparison with the film, as iconic cameo performances here became unwelcome drawn-out skits.

Casualties of comparison included Doug Rao, whose gently spoken Alleyn had none of the verve and pomp of Ben Affleck, whose wonderful vaunts were reduced here to throwaway asides; Anna Carteret, whose Queen Elizabeth followed the film script almost exactly, in a serious error of judgement following Judi Dench’s precise delivery of her withering lines; Harry Jardine, whose Sam was drawn as caricature of a boy actor and lacked the subtlety of the film’s actor; and Patrick Osborne as the stuttering Wabash, who made a meal of the role given such heart by Mark Williams, killing his moment of redemption by dragging it out too long. Most disappointingly, rather than make the role his own, Paul Chahidi played Geoffrey Rush playing Henslowe, chewing the scenery and camping up the role but seeming rather to mark a space rather than lead.

There were triumphs, however. Roberts played a very different Hugh Fennyman, this one more of a London gangster, who threw himself into his love of the arts with great gusto. Tony Bell had some fine asides as Ralph, Bartholomew milked his villainy as Tilney, and Alistair Petrie channelled Colin Firth as Wessex while making the role his own, a more drunken, lecherous and broken man than in the film. The beefed-up role for Crab, including a starring role rescuing Will from Wessex, also worked a treat, the dog carrying out his interventions with expert comic timing.

The other major change was the beefing up of the role of Will’s fellow dramatists. Colin Ryan was frustratingly grotesque as Webster, leering and gurning in entirely unnecessary fashion; yet his great audition speech revelling in the gore of Tamburlaine was a superb innovation, and Ryan’s attempts to get a bigger part became a fun running joke. More seriously, David Oakes as Marlowe was a major presence throughout the play. Here, Shakespeare’s dependence on Marlowe was foregrounded right from the start as the older dramatist wrote Sonnet 18 for him, feeding him lines as the Mercutio to Will’s Romeo during the balcony scene with Viola. Marlowe reappeared at the end, ambiguous in his death (a gesture to conspiracy theorists), but now Will was the one driving the plot.

In moments such as these the play became its own thing. When simply running through the film, I found myself bored, anticipating every beat as shadows of an iconic set of performances passed across the stage. This was most apparent in the two leads, who both did a fine job but crucially lacked any form of stage chemistry. Lucy Briggs-Owen (whose performance style always evokes exactly for me Keira Knightley’s early work) was at her best when enjoying herself as Thomas Kent, screaming to go for a drink with the boys, or when luxuriating in the sound of her own poetic voice; but in the more serious parts of the play she was wooden, the character coming across as self-absorbed. Tom Bateman, on the other hand, was a much more powerful presence than Joseph Fiennes, towering over his lover, but again lacking some of the delicate nuance that the part seemed to demand.

The triumph of this production was the beautiful music (settings of Shakespeare songs) performed live by an ensemble of four period chorister-musicians, shifting from ethereal lament to baroque formal dance to Irish jig. It complemented Ormerod’s set, which felt like a commercial compromise of Cheek by Jowl’s customary bare settings. A three tiered wooden gallery surrounded the stage, evoking the Rose, while a fourth wall moved back and forth, creating either a closely delineated interior (tavern, bedroom) as required, or retreating upstage to more closely approximate a stage. During the final performance, this wall moved back and forth constantly to allow the cast to shift between onstage and backstage scenes.

Donnellan’s wonderful directed style felt constrained in the space, cluttered as it was with bodies and scenery. Some key markers remained – scenes occasionally overlapped to allow the outgoing scene’s final words to resonate over and influence the new scene, and for most of the play the rest of the ensemble were on stage, watching or even lightly interacting with the ‘in-scene’ characters. There was, disappointingly, relatively little that emerged from this by way of interpretation, but in general it perpetuated importantly the ensemble ethos that characterised the play itself. As Burbage orchestrated the musicians to give gravitas to his grandstanding articulation of company solidarity, one couldn’t help but feel that this was shared by this company.

The play has time to bed in, and hopefully it will. When it became its own it was entertaining and lively, and the reactions of the matinee audience suggested that even the tireder and more poorly delivered jokes still had a freshness that is perhaps more dulled for me, as a teacher of and writer on the film, than for others. But it needs to find its heart and its own sense of originality if it wishes to stand alongside Disney’s other big screen-to-stage adaptations.

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