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Review: Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage (Battersea Arts Centre)

Ben Duke's Lost Dog Dance returns with this new take on Shakespeare's tragedy

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Solene Weinachter (Juliet) and Ben Duke (Romeo) in Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage
© Jane Hobson

People describe the work made by Lost Dog Dance as dance theatre. But it isn't really. It contains elements of theatre and bits of dance, but what artistic director Ben Duke and his artistic collaborator Raquel Meseguer produce is something quite unique – a kind of commentary on things that uses words, music and movement to make its points.

Duke's last show, a solo called Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), was a breakthrough: a wonderful treatment of Milton that spun off into being something quite different, covering love, marriage, children, the universe and all matters in between while performed by Duke with endearing skill and an acid wit. It left me feeling elated at its invention and originality.

This new show, starring Duke and Solène Weinachter, doesn't quite feel like progress. Its premise is that Friar Lawrence's plan works, Juliet and Romeo survive and escape the tomb in a fast car. By the time we meet them, they are living in Paris, with a daughter. After a bloke called Shakespeare turns up on the doorstep with a bottle of whisky, Romeo wakes up "feeling like I've really over-shared." The resulting bestseller fixes their lives in aspic. Juliet wants life to be as poetic as the play; Romeo wants to escape it all.

We meet them sitting, pensively, in chairs of the sort you find in doctor's waiting rooms, deciding to enact the major events of their relationship in front of us in order to solve their marital difficulties.

Some of this is very funny indeed, especially in the early stages. And while the movement seems like nothing much, it is in fact sophisticated and revealing. The awkward dance of courtship that Romeo enacts (to The Beatles' "I Want You") when he first sees Juliet at a fancy dress party (he goes as Darth Vader) is wonderfully apt, full of slithering and sliding steps towards and away from her. The separation between them from the start is cleverly highlighted: he thinks she was dressed as a golden chicken; she assures him she was a phoenix.

Their passionate love-making – a duet that is all flying limbs and ungainly bending – is humorous and gripping; so is the breakfast afterwards when they discover that they are profoundly incompatible. Yet the way that after her miscarriage, they make things right by tiny tender movements that spin into a little synchronised disco dancing is acutely and movingly observed. The soundtrack is a continual, eclectic delight ranging from Prokofiev to Bowie.

But clever though the conceit is, it never really takes us anywhere. As the evening descends into darker territory of marital disillusion, the piece doesn't have enough to say and the dance interludes become repetitive. By the time Weinachter closes the show with a song, it has gone on too long (even at 75 minutes) and not travelled far enough. It feels oddly provisional.

I admired Duke's desperate solo, when he tries to escape the flat that imprisons him, and I liked Weinachter's mime of her life looking after a small child, but if your only message is that it is hard to be married when the poetry has gone, it really isn't enough to sustain a piece of dance or theatre. Or even a hybrid of both.

Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 24 February and then at The Place Theatre from 27 February to 3 March.