Films don't easily convert into plays. For this one, a lot of theatrical know-how has been conscripted into adapting Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's Oscar-winning screenplay. Writer Lee Hall, who did a brilliant job converting the film Billy Elliot into a hit musical, has teamed up with director Declan Donnellan. The result is impressively fluid. Scenes change without one having to vacate the stage for the next. But as is often the case with stage adaptations, memories of the original film spool along simultaneously, leaving the stage version in front of you feeling awfully, well, stagey.
Nick Ormerod's design of the balconied Rose Theatre cleverly adapts for the locations in this Elizabethan fantasy. The plot, fans of the film will know, is about a struggling playwright called Shakespeare - played here by an improbably beefy Tom Bateman - who is churning out a comedy called Romeo and (wait for it) Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter for his producer. When Will falls in love, he decides to write a tragedy instead.
There is a lot of fun conjecture here about how the first production of possibly the most famous play ever written came about. Will spends the auditions for Romeo with his head buried in his hands, exasperated by the sheer awful talent on offer. But when it comes to the actual performance of (eventually renamed) Romeo and Juliet, the result is as moving as any version I've seen. Yet this show is very much a comedy. After Will falls for Viola (Lucy Briggs-Owen) - the daughter of a wealthy merchant who yearns to be an actor in one of the budding bard's plays - the main thrust of the evening is about putting on a production, the point being that little has changed. Producers still demand scripts for as little as possible. Bums on seats is still the name of the game. In that sense, this is a play for theatre makers as much as theatre-goers. And the running gags about Shakespearean phrase-making and putting on a show work better for being in a theatre than they did on screen.
Shakespeare himself is depicted as a flawed genius who often relies on his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (a charismatic David Oakes) for inspiration. And the evening hangs on a classically Shakespearean plot device that sees Briggs-Owen's Viola disguise herself as a boy actor. And although Donnellan's production lags in the second half by devoting too much stage time to Romeo and Juliet, the evening is brimful of charm and cleverness and paced with some gorgeous singing.
But what elevates this show into something far superior to the "Carry on" Shakespeare romp that the film and play could so easily have been is the Stoppardian spin on Shakespeare which revels in irreverence as well as love for the language, the plays and the man.
The show is elevated by a stoppardian spin on Shakespeare