Film review: Bill

Laughs labours aren’t lost

BILL: PA Photo/Vertigo Releasing
BILL: PA Photo/Vertigo Releasing

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are delightfully demented players.

The anarchic stars of Horrible Histories and Yonderland recount an untold chapter in the life of England’s greatest dramatist in this unabashedly silly romp, laden with cross-dressing, smut and the occasional documented fact.

Scripted by Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, Bill enthusiastically dons doublet and hose to run amok through the disease-ridden streets frequented by Oscar-winning romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love. Only here, William Shakespeare (Mathew Baynton) is a self-doubting dreamer, who squanders his talent in a hard-strumming Elizabethan boy band called Mortal Coil.

Rickard, Willbond and their regular small screen collaborators Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick don frocks, codpieces and fake moustaches to portray the motley crew of misfits who inhabit this outlandish vision of late 16th century London.

Production designer Simon Scullion and costume designer Charlotte Morris work tiny miracles on a limited budget to conjure a pungent backdrop to all of the scheming, skulduggery and silly accents.

The lead character’s arrival in the festering hellhole of London is a particular delight, as he wanders merrily around a market oblivious to thieving, murder and 
prostitution around him.

At the film’s heart is Bill, who dreams of becoming a playwright, which would mean transplanting his family from leafy Stratford-upon-Avon to London.

“It’s just another fad, Bill,” warn his wife Anne Hathaway (Howe-Douglas), who wants her husband to provide for his brood.

Unperturbed, Bill packs his knapsack and heads to the capital, where he befriends Christopher Marlowe (Howick), who is unemployed since the plague closed all of the playhouses.

The two men join forces on a play, which they intend to sell to The Earl Of Croydon (Farnaby), who has promised a comical entertainment for Queen Elizabeth I (Helen McCrory).

She is hosting a summit with King Philip II of Spain (Willbond), unaware that the Spanish ruler is plotting to kill her.

Thankfully, the Queen’s spymaster general Sir Francis Walsingham (Rickard) has a bulbous nose for trouble and sniffs out treachery in the royal ranks.

Bill retains the impishness and exuberance of the Horrible Histories TV series, albeit on a larger canvas and with a vast menagerie of characters including a spear-wielding palace guard with an appreciation for Elizabethan choons, and an overly enthusiastic collector of dead bodies.

The cast’s energy is infectious and they frequently seem to be one smirk or snigger shy of corpsing en masse and ruining the take.

Humour remains just within the bounds of a PG certificate, including repeated appearances of a handheld torture device that is thrust where the sun doth not shine.

Amid the belly laughs, the film proffers a new suspect for Marlowe’s murder and sows the seeds of all 37 plays that would tumble furiously from Shakespeare’s ink-stained quill.