Twitter Plot Summary: The Horrible Histories gang present Shakespeare: The Early Years.
I’m quite a fan of the comedy troupe that gave us the live action Horrible Histories television series and, more recently, the absolute delight that is Yonderland. Would it come as any surprise to anybody reading this that I would then go and see their feature length comedy about William Shakespeare being embroiled in a Spanish plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I? No, thought not.
That’s almost it as far as the story is concerned. Shakespeare heads off to London to seek his fortune, despite his wife’s misgivings about his lack of direction in life. When we meet him he’s a rather talented guitar player with Mortal Coil, albeit his style is one that jars with the other band members. Meanwhile King Phillip II of Spain is plotting Elizabeth’s demise, and opts to do so under cover of a play being performed in London.
Enter Shakespeare (Matthew Baynton), sort of. And Christopher Marlowe also. The two struggling playwrights must write the One Play to Rule Them All, or something along those lines, lest they be horribly murdered (or worse!) by either Phillip, Queen Elizabeth or possibly some Russian mobsters.
Fans of the aforementioned Horrible Histories show will likely get the most from this in the long run, its ghastly interpretation of the Virgin Queen and Marlowe’s role in the playwriting world of the period are given fact-based twists. It’s a delightfully insane collection of characters that play to each of the core cast’s strengths.
Francis Rickard threatens to steal the show as Sir Francis Walsingham, master of disguise and prone to appearing suddenly from various angles without notice. A brief, amusing cameo from Damian Lewis in the opening moments adds star power yet leaves you wondering how much value his name in the cast adds given that he isn’t used all that much.
It’s amiable enough and the Monty Python-esque insistence of the cast playing multiple roles apiece is one that sits well with this reviewer. The only place it struggles is in providing female characters with useful things to do. Martha Howe-Douglas has multiple roles, sure, but two of them are carbon copies- court hand maids, essentially – and her more substantial role of Shakespeare’s wife Anne is limited almost entirely to admonishing him for not having a proper job. Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCrory) meanwhile, has a few amusing moments but is again limited in what she contributes to the plot. This isn’t a Judi Dench/Shakespeare in Love style role by any stretch of the imagination.
There are many more elements that are genuinely funny but to say anything about them here would be to potentially spoil the film. It’s apparent that everyone involved enjoyed making it. More surprisingly, this is not an indication that the final product isn’t very good. Far from it, in fact. The jokes are amusing on the whole, even if there is perhaps a deficit in the type of full-on belly laughs that Yonderland often provides. With that said, there’s not much funnier than having King Phillip II of Spain calling a British spy a bum hole.