The thing that is immediately apparent in Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's production of Romeo and Juliet is that it is a play best viewed through the prism of youth. There is a Juliet who looks as though she is a girl of 13, going on 14, a Lady Capulet little more than a young woman herself, a group of boys as dazzled with life as they are with love. Under the direction of young Russian director Polina Kalinina it works as a visceral thrill ride as heady as that of first love.
It's given an electric jolt by Paapa Essiedu as Romeo. Stumbling on in sun glasses, boyish grin etched on his face, not all there, in a daze for Rosalind, or perhaps just stoned, it's a performance that comes to dominate the stage. So often in performance Romeo is a drip; not here, there is animal in him, seen as he roughly scraps with Mercutio, more so as he wreaks bloody vengeance, but it's qualified with a charm that would make a mother melt. He makes the women and a portion of the male audience giddy. For those who like to collect actors before they hit big things a trip to Bristol to see Essiedu is definitely in order.
Kalinina sets this version around 1968, the time of uprising in Europe, where ideas, free love, drugs, music and counterculture blended. These ideas permeate the play, mixed in with vicious explosions of violence; where a brick to the head is as likely to finish you off as a dagger to the chest. Staged in the close up confines of the Tobacco Factory the blows feel sickeningly real, we involuntary wince and try to shift back in our chairs not wishing to be implicated; it's some of the best fight choreography out there.
Sally Oliver's nurse is the second stand out turn of the night: a haughty, moody, flighty, flirty melange of a woman who may be getting more from her mistress's father then meets the eye. Strong impressions are also made from Timothy Knightley and Fiona Sheehan as the Capulets, smooth and urbane in public, jealous and strained behind closed doors.
Not all the ideas stick. The production is better in the first half and the chaos of "fair Verona" then juggling the youthful romance that comes to dominate the second. Daisy Whalley produces strong work as Juliet, growing from innocent girl to women before the lark sings but there is a lack of full on, firework-exploding chemistry between the two lovers and it hurts the conclusion. It doesn't feel life and death enough, and adding sound effects and lighting straight out of Annabelle as Juliet drinks her draught doesn't aid the cause.
The school and A Level groups will love it for its showy exteriors and there is enough depth in the acting to suggest it will become more moving as it settles into its stride. With its 'star is born' central turn and youthful vitality to burn this Romeo and Juliet is a bullseye for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory.
Romeo and Juliet continues until 4 April - more info and tickets here