BWW Reviews: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, Noel Coward Theatre, February 5 2015
All those words, but just the one portrait (or so it seems). It's hard to shake that image of Shakespeare (looking like BBC weatherman Michael Fish) and imagine him at 29 or so - laddish, footloose and alpha-maleishly knocking about with Kit Marlowe and Ned Alleyn in Elizabethan London, dodging the pox but not the women.
But, infused with manic energy and with a solid track record already behind him, he's blocked, not even able to get past, "Shall I compare thee to a, a, a..." without Marlowe feeding him the "Summer's day." And blocked he remains, until wealthy merchant's daughter, Viola, who, like a One Direction fan mouthing every word of every song from the front row and with every bit as much hero-worship, cross-dresses her way into his company of actors (all men, of course) and sure enough, straight into Shakey's heart.
The path of true love etc etc... so soon The Bard finds himself barred from her house and pursued by the Earl of Wessex, who carries a torch, and a sword too, for Viola. Life starts to imitate art, as the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet appears on the page in parallel with the tragedy of Will and Viola, as separated by social mores as any Capulet and Montague is by ancient feud.
Adapted by Lee Hall from Tom Stoppard's and Marc Norman's original screenplay of the award-winning film, Shakespeare in Love (continuing at the Noel Coward Theatre) is a crowdpleasing romp full of jokes, in-jokes, joshing and duelling that fully deserves its rave reviews when opening in 2014, no doubt to be repeated with its new cast for 2015.
And that cast have such fun, overacting and hamming it up with impunity with no gesture too grand, no emotion held back, no conversation too inconsequential not to have a familiar phrase dropped in received with knowing smirks in the audience. Orlando James gives us a dashing Shakey who spends much of his time dashing about between producers and dashing off dialogue for the next day's rehearsals - and a man not too proud to plagiarise a friend! Eve Ponsonby is about as convincing as a man as I am as a ballerina, but she has the looks, the brains and the adoration required to capture Will's heart - well, he was an actor after all.
The two lovers get splendid support from a cavalacade of actors, producers, rogues and courtiers, amongst whom Ryan Donaldson channels the spirit of Rik Mayall's Flasheart as Ned Alleyn and Nicholas Asbury all but twirls his moustache as the dastardly Wessex. Best of all is the show-stealing Suzanne Burden who - and you'll have to go with me on this - plays Queen Elizabeth as a Margaret Thatcher blessed with a sense of humour and compassion.
Add to that a sensational design by Nick Ormerod that invests heavy slabs of wood with a lightness and movement that seems scarcely believable and a breathless pace insisted upon by director Declan Donnellan that certainly recalls his As You Like It for Cheek By Jowl of some 20 years ago, and you have a West End theatre production that ticks just about every box. And fills just about every seat.