NOEL COWARD THEATRE.
Viola wears her moustache and breeches with pride in this re-cast tale of star-crossed lovers.
With its beautifully constructed set, lavish costumes and a stage jam-packed with 28 characters, this is a sumptuous production of a very cleverly conceived idea – how Shakespeare himself might have struggled for inspiration until love unleashed his full powers.
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, it’s been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, and has already had a long and successful West end run under director Declan Donnellan. Now recast, it looks set to maintain its popular appeal, offering a very entertaining take on Elizabethan theatrical rivalries, as well as weaving in Sylvia, sonnets and all the best bits from Romeo and Juliet.
The first and most striking aspect of the production is its music, composed by Paddy Cunneen, who sticks as closely as possible to Elizabethan instruments and harmonic styles. It’s infused into the show’s fabric under musical director Thomas Padden. Cunneen worked closely with choreographer Jane Gibson to ensure that dance, music and speech could all be unified successfully in key scenes. There is some beautiful singing, with one (unidentified) male voice in particular soaring above all the others with spine-tingling ease.
Nick Ormerod’s majestic wooden set works brilliantly, particularly when shuttling back and forth to create the illusion of switching from being backstage to being in the audience. And his costumes, from Queen Elizabeth’s glittering majesty to Nursie’s splendid corsetry, are a delight.
This is written very much as an ensemble piece, with meaty character roles including grandstanding Burbage (Peter Moreton), bloodthirsty Webster (Stuart Wilde) and the incomparable Christopher Marlowe, a dry, insouciant master of his own art, played here with elegant élan by Edward Franklin. The Nurse is charming and saucy by turn, with Joy Richardson relishing the conspiracy with her mistress.
However its ultimate success rests with its leads. Eve Ponsonby takes the role of Viola De Lesseps, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant who longs for poetry and to go on the stage, but is destined for the marriage market.
Ponsonby is a lively, sparkling Viola, who makes a charming boy when she joins the players as Thomas Kent. She seizes most of her comic opportunities, but seems in a tremendous hurry, and at times her restless energy is in danger of overwhelming the subtleties of Viola’s ambitious double dealings. However, she is carefully controlled in the misery of her engagement to the charmless Earl of Wessex, played with chilly hauteur by Nicholas Asbury.
As Will Shakespeare, Orlando James is also bursting with youthful high spirits, and we feel all his frustration over stalled work and forbidden love for Viola. Yet despite all the extravagance and polish of the production, there is somehow a spark missing between these star-crossed lovers. No doubt it will rekindle as they settle into their new roles, but the tragedy of their parting isn’t felt as keenly as it should be.
Nevertheless, Donnellan’s show remains a beautifully constructed entertainment. And if, like Queen Elizabeth I, you relish the idea of an adorable dog doing tricks on stage, then satisfaction is guaranteed.