Productions of Romeo and Juliet smelling of teen spirit are not new. But for his debut production as the Watermill's artistic director, Paul Hart creates an edgy approach to the play, recruiting a young ensemble, largely cast in collaboration with the National Youth Theatre, to work in the theatre's signature actor/musician style.
Designer Katie Lias transforms The Watermill into Capulet's, a disreputable, sticky-floored bar with audience seating on four sides, moodily lit by Tom White, setting the tone for the evening. Hart's use of the Watermill's shared intimate space is exhilarating and sending cast members into the balcony among the audience adds to the dynamism. The ten-strong cast all sing and play, largely on guitar. Johnny Flynn [currently starring in Martin McDonagh's Hangmen] is credited with the music, along with found tracks and musical collaborations from the rehearsal room, all working together to enhance and underscore the action. The ensemble work (movement director Tom Jackson Greaves, fight director Ian McCracken, sound designer David Gregory) is especially effective at the play's flashpoints starting with the shared opening chorus and ensuing brawl. The lovers' first meeting and later Romeo's banishment (with percussion echoing the repetition of that word, so you realise how often its knell is repeated) and Juliet imbibing the death-imitating potion, are all powerfully orchestrated.
Romeo, an emotional, angst-ridden Stuart Wilde, all black hair and eyeliner is 'the lover, sighing like furnace' from the start. His passion for Rosaline, forgotten the moment he sets eyes on Juliet, is especially obsessive, presaging his supreme sacrifice for Juliet. But once he falls for Lucy Keirl's naïve, bouncy, tom-boy Juliet (in shorts and hoodie rather than floaty nightwear for her wedding night), the pair bring a freshness to their all too brief time together, not so much dreamy as already achieving the easy familiarity of soulmates. There's even a delicious chuckle as Romeo climbs the ladder Juliet obligingly provides as she puffs on the spliff that brought her onto the balcony.
Keirl is just out of drama school, Wilde has some professional work under his belt, reflecting judicious casting across the play. The adults are played by more seasoned actors. Samantha Pearl's slinky Lady Capulet is obviously a local celeb and Mike Slader's Capulet as dangerous as the Krays; while Lauryn Redding pulls off a terrific double of authoritative Prince and bawdy, knowing nurse, giving as good as she gets to the rude boys. Peter Mooney's flamboyant, dangerously unpredictable Mercutio is pushy older cousin to Romeo and Victoria Blunt's attractive, supportive Benvolio. Rebecca Lee's empathetic Friar Laurence has a hint of the mystic, recalling Juliana of Norwich. Both Blunt and Lee show enormous promise for the future - and Hart's production too promises an exciting future for the Watermill.