Shakespeare in Love

25th to 29th June 2024

Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard | Brewhouse Theatre, Burton upon Trent | Directed by John Bowness

The Bard hits Burton in a slick production of ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s genius play will be familiar to most audiences from the 1998 film starring, among many other famous faces, Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Colin Firth. Described as a ‘love letter to theatre’, it cleverly weaves the plot of Romeo and Juliet into the story of Shakespeare himself falling in love with Viola de Lesseps, a much-needed muse who finally helps him to overcome a worrying period of writer’s block.

It's a brilliantly witty and fiercely clever play, as much a love letter to Shakespeare as it is an homage to the power and importance of theatre as an art form. Burton’s Little Theatre Company rise to the various challenges of staging it, transporting the opening night audience to Elizabethan England thanks to a superb two-tier set, designed by John Bowness and Ben Winson, and wonderful period costumes.

Under John Bowness’ artistic direction and Kaite Hailstone’s musical direction, the production rattles along at an engaging pace as we meet a host of colourful characters variously involved in either attempting to stage or attempting to cancel a performance of ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter’. If your knowledge of Shakespeare is confined to vague memories of balconies and daggers from your school days, fear not. ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is the perfect play for newcomers and Bardolaters alike.

Kieran Barrett is in fine form as the leading man himself, combining artistic frustration with lovesick swooning in the title role. Whether Viola de Lesseps, played with passion and an easy naturalism by Seren Rowlands, is in love with Shakespeare himself or his writing is unclear but what does emerge in the excellent chemistry between the two leads is the seductive power of beautiful poetry.

Although the man from Stratford has become the most famous playwright in history, the play reminds us of many of his talented contemporaries. Matt Lesley is marvellous as wise-cracking braggart Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe and Harry Dawber is a wonderfully bloodthirsty John Webster, the boy who would grow up to write the violent revenge tragedy ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.

Jim Haywood is perfectly cast as theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, landing the biggest laughs of the night as he becomes increasingly bewildered by the chaos of staging a play. His repeated insistence that what audiences really want is “love and a bit with a dog” is the best running gag in the play. Ben Winson is a suitably oily and hateful Lord Wessex, the man to whom Viola is betrothed, and Phil Robinson puts in an endearing performance as theatre sceptic turned actor Hugh Fennyman.

In an impressive 25-strong cast, other standout performances include Joseph Blake (a swaggering, pompous Ned Allen with an ego bigger than his breeches ), Nathan Pocock (a sweet voiced youth playing Juliet) and Bethan Waite as a delightfully domineering Queen Elizabeth I. It’s an ensemble effort and comes together convincingly, particularly in various nicely choreographed period dance sequences.

“The natural condition of the theatre business,” explains Henslowe early on in the play, “is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. I don’t know how. It’s a mystery.” Whatever the obstacles were in this latest Little Theatre Company production, they had clearly been navigated and overcome. All did, indeed, turn out well. A highly recommended production of a brilliant play.

‘Shakespeare in Love’ is playing at the Brewhouse Theatre in Burton upon Trent from 25th to 29th June 2024.