Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s inventive 1997 screenplay did not waste an ounce of the potential. They found funny parallels, delighted in the cross-dressing improbabilities and balanced perfectly the broad schoolroom skits and the wry insider jokes. Oscars were inevitable.
If it were possible, Lee Hall’s stage adaptation is even better.
A play that delights in sending-up – and adoring – the theatre has found its rightful home. Scenes are set backstage, on balconies, with flashing blades, lit by candlelight. Meanwhile, director Declan Donnellan has packed the gliding three-tiered Globe-alike stage with romance, japes, crinolines, eerie Renaissance music … and Romeo And Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter.
And in a moment, he turns this joyous comedy into a heart-stopping tragedy of two star-cross’d lovers. The switch never jars, the intensity never falters and the audience is so utterly lost in the magic of the moment that the only danger is a misstep. It never comes.
It relies, inevitably, on Tom Bateman’s Will – the blocked writer – and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Viola De Lessops (and occasionally Thomas Kent) as the wealthy, out-of-reach woman pledged to ghastly Lord Wessex but loving the penniless poet instead.
Bateman is a sinuous, passionate and bouncy stage presence bolstered by his merry band of brothers (and enemies) that includes louche Marlowe (David Oakes), portly Henslowe (Paul Chahidi), cartoonish John Webster (Colin Ryan) and bombastic Burbage (David Ganley).
Briggs-Owen manages to combine smoky sultry sexiness with gauche girlie giggling in the same taut comportment – and often while dressed as a man. Her dazzling performance is to Gwyneth Paltrow’s efforts what a triple-thick ice cream milkshake is to half a glass of semi-skimmed.
“Comedy, love – and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want,” says Thomas Henslowe of us fee-paying groundlings. Tick, tick and tick (courtesy of faultless four-legged Spot).
It is difficult to imagine a rival for your West End pound. Unless there are pirates in it.
Until April 18, 7.30pm (mats), £27.25-£89.75, noelcowardtheatre.co.uk
Noel Coward Theatre