Updating the action is never as easy an option as it may at first appear. Rob Salmon’s production for the RSC Open Stages initiative using a cast drawn from community and youth theatre groups connected to the New Wolsey Theatre is a bold attempt which – in parts – works extremely well. The predominantly youthful and large cast go to it with immense commitment and evident verve.
What falls by the wayside, perhaps inevitably, is the verse and with it the actual sense of the many words spoken. Salmon, his assistant director Laura Norman and designer Foxton lead us through the story using different spaces of the Ipswich Town Hall. As some of these are cavernous, with all the echoes and sound distortion caused by marble floors and ceilings, there is a sense of everyone shouting most of the time.
The settings themselves are impressive. The louche Capulet party is held in a night-club; Friar Laurence’s cell and Juliet’s tomb have pew seating facing an altar; Juliet’s bedroom is a girlish fantasy of white drapes, flickering candles and a pseudo four-poster bed. But a certain amount of tension and that critical suspension of disbelief evaporates as we move between the locations.
Not only is the time that of the present, the characters are all distinctly down-market. Stephen Hawthorne’s Capulet and Malcolm Hollister’s Montague are somewhat seedy; you feel they’re more likely to be in charge of slightly dodgy used-car sales or fly-by-night building contractors than in the social circle of a chief constable (Joseph Fielder as the Prince). You sense that Jackie Montague’s Lady Capulet has condescended just a little too far in her own marriage.
Tom Bailey never quite made me believe in Romeo, though Liam Gregory oozes the right sort of menace as Tybalt and speaks very well. Lin Sagovsky plays the Nurse as Irish, which is fair enough, though I would have liked to have distinguished more of her words, Paul Couch (of this parish) is the well-meaning Friar and there’s a nice sketch of Peter by Liam Johnston – so engrossed by his mobile that everything else simply passes him by. Harry Smithson never quite seems to come to terms with the effervescent aspects of Mercutio.
As Juliet, Armonie Melville offers a properly three-dimensional portrait of that precarious teenage balancing act with wanting and rebellion on one side and evaluation and appreciation on the other. From her first appearance, sulkily cross because nurse and mother treat her as a child, to her growing awareness that love has many consequences – which she is ultimately prepared to accept – she’s completely credible.