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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chris Wiegand

Romeo & Juliet review – slow jams, Asda bags and trackie tops in a Manchester love story

Conor Glean as Romeo and Shalisha James-Davis as Juliet.
Electric scenes … Conor Glean as Romeo and Shalisha James-Davis as Juliet. Photograph: Johan Persson

Relocating Shakespeare’s Veronese tragedy to modern Manchester gains extra impact on derby weekend. The half-and-half scarves with United and City logos sold near the Royal Exchange are reminders of an ancient grudge dividing this city.

Nicholai La Barrie’s production establishes its setting with plenty of local accents and a servant searching for Wilmslow Road. The costume design favours trackie tops, denim and trainers. When townspeople emerge in the wake of violent acts, it feels as though the theatre’s passersby have been drawn inside.

Maxine Peake fondly shared advice on performing in this intimate space: “Try and avoid the Asda bags on the front row on a Saturday matinee.” This afternoon, they’re carried by actors instead. Gemma Ryan’s Nurse drops hers by the armchair, and tucks in to a giant Flump after a shopping trip. Geoff Aymer’s Chorus hauls his on for the prologue, delivered amid mock confrontation with the audience that immediately recognises our polarised times.

David Judge, Conor Glean and Adam Fenton in Romeo and Juliet.
Issues of masculinity … David Judge (Mercutio), Conor Glean (Romeo) and Adam Fenton (Benvolio) in Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: Johan Persson

Good Teeth’s design has volcanic fissures and concentric circles that evoke Verona’s walls: here is a theatre that sits, unusually, within a building; a playing space tightened by a ring of floor grates; and at the centre, imposingly lowered from above, a cage-like structure (shades of West Side Story’s fire escape) representing the balcony.

Unusually, Juliet (Shalisha James-Davis) climbs that balcony more often than Romeo (Conor Glean) during their moonlit encounter. She is dynamic throughout the show, with assured movement direction by Jade Hackett. When Romeo first spies her she is atop a table, acting the MC, all chants and shoutouts. With Lord Capulet absent from this production, many of his lines go to Lady Capulet (Kate Hampson), stressing an independence that possibly influences her daughter. The production underlines that Juliet suggests marriage, with Romeo visibly taken aback.

Glean’s Romeo battles with masculinity. He glowers, frustrated by his feelings for Rosaline, foreshadowing his complaint that Juliet’s beauty makes him effeminate. There’s a spectacular amount of front here: Ashley O’Brien is a hard-nut Tybalt, David Judge’s fleet-footed Mercutio delivers “prick love for prickers” like a rap, and the weaponry ranges from baseball bats to an axe (the Nurse’s handbag conceals a Stanley knife). The apothecary is cleverly replaced by a pair of menacing dealers who circle Romeo on bikes.

Ashley O’Brien and Kate Hampson.
Tough talk … Ashley O’Brien (Tybalt) and Kate Hampson (Lady Capulet). Photograph: Johan Persson

The thumping bass of Mark Melville’s soundscape can occasionally be a distraction, but his more successful music-driven set pieces include the lovers moving to Floetry’s Say Yes. James-Davis and Glean’s shared scenes are often electric – teasing, tender, sultry as a slow jam – although Juliet’s relationships with her mother and Nurse, and the wider generation gap, are underdeveloped. Adam Fenton’s bruised Benvolio, more torn than usual, stands out. Reducing the character list doesn’t help to make the minor roles more distinctive.

Even with a streamlined ending (no Balthazar, a curtailed Friar, altogether less to-ing and fro-ing), and an occasional rushed speech, it almost reaches three hours’ traffic. The play never quite goes like lightning (despite lighting designer Azusa Ono creating just such a climactic storm), but its closing call for more talk of our tragic divisions lands squarely with the audience.

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