Tom Bateman as Will with the company of Lee Hall's Shakespeare in Love, directed by Declan Donnellan, at London's Noël Coward Theatre.
Tom Bateman as Will with the company of Lee Hall's Shakespeare in Love, directed by Declan Donnellan, at London's Noël Coward Theatre.
(© Johan Persson)

Every theatergoer, at one time or another, will wonder why a playwright wrote a particular piece. What was going on in the author's life or mind that caused him or her to turn out such greatness (or, in some cases, awfulness)? The romantic, bloody works of William Shakespeare have produced hundreds of years' worth of books on the subject, and a few movies, too. One of the most notable is a fanciful reimagining of the creation of Romeo and Juliet, the film Shakespeare in Love, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1999, as well as statuettes for its authors, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

This love letter to the theater has now been brought to London's West End, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, and directed by Declan Donnellan. While the expansive, beautifully designed production at the Noël Coward Theatre will hardly banish the film from your mind, it's an often beguiling enterprise that stays true to the source material and its delicious sense of humor.

Young Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) owes a play to his producer, Philip Henslowe (Paul Chahidi), the impresario of The Rose, one of the early playhouses. This play, tentatively titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, also belongs to the rival actor-manager Richard Burbage (David Ganly). But Will hasn't written it yet and is basically suffering from writer's block — that is, until he meets the stunning noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen), who wishes for a life in the theater herself. She auditions (in drag) and lands the leading role of Romeo.

What transpires over the course of this comedy has all the intrigue, romance, and mistaken identities of Shakespeare's plays. Hall's script stays very close to the film's screenplay, and Donnellan's staging, on a set by Nick Ormerod, re-creates the atmosphere of the Rose Playhouse. While it's hard not to wish that the production were a bit more unconventional (à la Peter and the Starcatcher), it's a loving tribute to show business that's mostly impossible to resist — though clocking in at nearly three hours, the show admittedly needs trimming.

In the leading roles, Bateman and Briggs-Owen do credible jobs making the parts (played in the film by Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow) their own, and have a very palpable chemistry. Anna Carteret is a hoot as Queen Elizabeth, the glorified cameo so indelibly portrayed originally by Judi Dench, who won an Oscar for the role. Hall also provides the ensemble, which in total numbers 28, with a host of juicy roles that they can really sink their teeth into. And, of course, this show also contains a key element of nearly every stage production these days, a scene-stealing dog.

Ultimately, Shakespeare in Love aspires to be nothing more than a fanciful fable about the creation of one of the world's great plays and how its author found his footing in the world. This charming take on a sweet confection of a movie will melt your heart.