I usually run a mile from stage adaptations of films, with the exception of oddball productions such as Kneehigh's Brief Encounter and the ever-successful 39 Steps. But I always knew I would buy a ticket for Shakespeare in Love as soon as I saw the names of those creating the show.
Director Declan Donnellan, designer Nick Ormerod and writer Lee Hall are among the most brilliant people working in theatre anywhere. And their raw material is an original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. So with such skyhigh expectations, do they bring it off?
I saw an early preview last night, perched in the balcony of the Noel Coward Theatre (the prices of seats lower down are fairly horrendous). So I was looking down on the stage from the theatrical equivalent of Mount Everest and seeing a show that hasn't quite hit its top gear yet in generating laughter.
But my answer is a Yes. It works in theatrical terms, because the hugely experienced team in charge know exactly what they are doing. Ormerod's set resembles a Shakespearean playhouse with oak balconies, one of which traverses the stage and moves forward and backwards as required. There are some inevitable problems with sightlines from the balcony, so my advice is skip the pre-show pizza and the interval drinks, and pay more for a better view. The combination of set and lighting allows a non-realist flexibility that creates a second, interior dimension for the characters, showing that theatre can have real advantages over film. At times a big ensemble scene goes dark, the secondary characters freeze, and the principals are spotlighted on their own. The balconies are used to great effect and the bedroom scenes are played in a big Elizabethan double bed with curtains.
Lee Hall has respected Stoppard's brilliant Shakespearean jokes and deliberately anachronistic one-liners, while adding some deft comic touches of his own. As with the same writer's Billy Elliott, the extra half-hour or so that a stage show has to play with over a film has enabled him to insert new material, particularly in the second half of the story. In one of the balcony scenes Kit Marlowe feeds poetic lines from the shadows to his less talented friend Shakespeare to help his seduction of young Viola de Lesseps. This is a clever steal from Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Marlowe becomes a more substantial character than in the film, and so does the theatre manager Henslowe, delightfully played by that superb character actor Paul Chahidi. As Shakespeare and Viola, Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen make a convincingly passionate couple, though I don't think they will drive out screen memories of Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Anna Carteret is very regal as Queen Elizabeth and Alistair Petrie is well cast as Viola's middle-aged husband-to-be Wessex, giving the role quite a different twist to Colin Firth, who played him in the film as a younger, shiftier character.
The ending differs slightly from the film in style, but not in story. There are more extensive excerpts from Romeo and Juliet than in the film, and I feel the final half hour needs some cutting. But, details apart, this remains a wonderfully rich tale of love and theatre, which strikes a delicate balance between historical authenticity and modern irony.
I now realise I have failed to mention the dog, whose role is so important that he is played alternately by two animals, Barney and Scrumpy. I can't be quite sure which of the two I saw, but it was the brown one, and he was very good indeed. I hope there will be an Olivier award for Best Dog next spring.
This show is probably the most expensive production, other than the big musicals, to have arrived in the West End for some time. Produced by Sonia Friedman and backed by the financial muscle of Disney, it has excellent music and dance, whose formality enables Donnellan to create delicate theatrical metaphors that step away from cinematic realism. The show probably has a budget that would pay for about dozen of the touring Cheek By Jowl productions that Donnellan and Ormerod are famous for. And it has a huge cast of nearly 30 actors. At a time when colour-blind casting is becoming more common for period theatrical productions, it should be recorded that this show has an all-white cast.