Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre, review: Deliciously funny and absurd

5.00

Moments of sheer stage poetry are mixed with effervescent fun

“Comedy, love – and a bit with a dog. That's what they want,” declares Thomas Henslowe, the debt-ridden theatre manager in Shakespeare in Love. We'll come to the love in a moment.  But first things first. Not since the chihuahua in the musical of Legally Blonde has there been a more captivating canine cameo in the West End than that now being turned in by the Labradoodle “Spot” (“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”) in this joyous stage adaptation of the Oscar-laden 1997 movie.

Spot is used sparingly and starts off, truth to tell, as a bit of a dope. But Lee Hall's very canny overhaul of the celebrated Tom Stoppard/Marc Norman script gives Spot the chance to turn up trumps at a crucial juncture (Lassie, eat your heart out) and it's deliciously funny and absurd and affecting and entirely of a piece with the irresistible spirit of this show. 

Screen to stage transfers are so frequent and mostly catchpenny and cynical that the prospect of yet another tends to fill a critic's heart with dread. But here there's the elating sense that the material – with its rivalry between two public playhouses echoing the feud between the Montagues and Capulets – is revelling in it natural element in the theatre. 

And the smartest move made by the producers was to hire director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, the world-renowned Cheek By Jowl team whose profound understanding of Shakespearean drama (its dazzling fluidity; its blithe refusal to respect the “rules” of genre; its mood-mingling suppleness) enriches a production that is filled with moments of sheer stage poetry as well as good-natured, effervescent fun. 

The action unfolds on a set that resembles a wooden three-tier Shakespearean playhouse. The middle section is mobile allowing for magical kinaesthetic gliding between backstage and onstage.  The proceedings begin and end with the enormous, superbly characterful 28-strong cast clustered and craning round the young Bard and his contrary quill.

A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre Throughout there's a zestful rejoicing in the non-literal nature of theatre and the collective story-telling powers of a company. The performers double as observers of the show (from the balconies or right up close) and there are adorable little touches such as when the newly cognisant Shakespeare removes Viola's false moustache in her boudoir, he calmly hands the bogus whiskers to the actor playing Marlowe who happens to be one of the bystanders. The ridiculousness of this gesture doesn't undercut the romance but delectably reinforces it. 

There's sizzling chemistry between Tom Bateman (a more dashing and impetuously open-hearted Shakespeare than the sneakier Joseph Fiennes) and Lucy Briggs-Owen who is feistier and more forthright than Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps, the noblewoman whose passion to act out Shakespeare's verse in a theatre culture that excludes women drives her into male drag and a gig as Romeo. 

The poignancy of their star-crossed love is intensified here by the strategy of freeze-framing while they enter into a deeper dimension and by Paddy Cunneen's ravishing quasi-authentic settings of Shakespearean songs and sonnets with period instruments (lutes and recorders) and a harmonising quartet dominated by the melancholy beauty of a questing counter-tenor. 

Lee (Billy Elliot) Hall's adaptation sticks to the story and about 90% of the original dialogue with the cheeky anachronisms that drolly suggest that it was ever thus with showbiz.  But he's invented some seriously witty twists of his own. 

He's beefed up Shakespeare's relationship with his friendly rival Marlowe (enchantingly mild and kindly David Oakes) who is seen here, a la Cyrano de Bergerac, feeding him from the shadows with the improvised lines of one of the Bard's own forthcoming sonnets in the balcony scene with Viola. 

And the backstage re-angling, the impassioned presentation of the death scene Romeo and Juliet, and the haunting intimations of Twelfth Night, sharpened by the suggestion that the censorious Master of the Revels is a forerunner of Malvolio, are all masterly.  It makes you feel grateful to be alive.

Did I mention the bit with the dog?

To 25 October; 0844 482 5141

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

    The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

    They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
    A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

    Dropout generation failed by colleges

    £800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
    Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

    Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch