Review Round-Ups

Did critics bite their thumbs at Romeo and Juliet with Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers?

Jamie Lloyd’s production had its opening night at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, © Marc Brenner

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage

“In the balcony scene, where stars Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers sit side-by-side, not even touching, it’s hard not to be swept away by the rapture of the words, the way that they carry them along. When she talks about the inconstancy of the moon, she leans into the language, making it sound natural but full of meaning.

“Both are wonderfully convincing as young people struck by love; his cheeky grin when he first sees her and his little dance of triumph are touching. Nor does he shy away from Romeo’s tendency to overreact to every situation; he is a hero who lives life at full throttle, always blubbing, always fearing the worst. Amewudah-Rivers’ Juliet, on the other hand, has a boldness that seems to surprise her.  As the action darkens, her feeling deepens.”

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph

“Amewudah-Rivers, 26, is a huge find, by turns understated, coy, comically off-hand, and defiantly passionate. But eyes rivet, inevitably, to Holland – beefy of bicep, but pale, achingly tender, at times teary and then cheery, all hormonal vulnerability.

“We’re as far from Franco Zeffirelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet or Baz Luhrmann’s madcap Romeo + Juliet as possible. But although the urban aesthetic is monochrome, even dour – the lighting often harsh – it never feels drab. The street-wise, star-cross’d lovers hold us in their spell, stamp the play with a 2024 freshness, and earn their Shakespearean spurs. The West End hasn’t ever really seen an R&J like it, which was surely the point.”

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard

Lloyd’s production is characteristically stark and bracing. The action is sliced, diced and interspliced into a brisk two hours, laced with occasional anachronisms, blinding lights and jagged bursts of industrial music.

“There’s no set apart from a mesh wall, a video screen and a big sign saying ‘VERONA’. The actors wear monochrome jeans, jackets and hoodies and speak their lines with icy clarity through microphones on stands or taped to their cheeks.”

Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out

“This could all make for an unbearably dour couple of hours, but the supporting characters are a lot more fun: Freema Agyeman is a hoot as a cougar-y Nurse, Tomiwa Edun is inspired as a strict Nigerian dad Capulet; and Michael Balogun is superb as the Friar – he has a righteous, preacherly air that elegantly collapses into panic as he realises that the tragedy that unfurls is, in its way, largely his fault.

For Lloyd, Romeo and Juliet is another step down his increasingly auteur-ish path. Exactly what’s in it for Holland is an intriguing question – it shows he’s versatile, can work in an ensemble, and rise to the challenge of leftfield director’s theatre (and is stacked), but it’s not the sort of BIG Shakespearean performance that necessarily wins a bunch of awards and shifts the dial on Spider-Man being the thing he’s known for. It’s a pretty weird night at the theatre, frankly. But adjust to its fugue state and it’s deeply compelling.”

Sarah Hemming, Financial Times

Lloyd telescopes the action so that scenes are overlaid or compressed down to just the dialogue: this is Shakespeare’s tragedy condensed to the elements, the language to the fore. It’s an approach that brings both gains and losses. It can be thrilling and revealing — Joshua-Alexander Williams’s eerie delivery of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, for instance. We notice how the word “death” haunts the lovers. But some directorial decisions are too opaque, and we lose the physical context for the big plot gear changes — the ball, the fight.

“Aside from Freema Agyeman’s wonderful, funny nurse, there’s little humour, so we lose the lightness that makes the darkness more terrible.  Even so, this is a compelling production: vivid, sad, restless. It brings home forcefully — and perhaps this is its point in today’s world — that death is not romantic. We’re left with the empty senselessness of five young lives needlessly snuffed out.” 

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian

“Francesca Amewudah-Rivers brings her own spiky charisma as Juliet, all the more heroic given the backdrop of social media racial abuse she has received. Holland and Amewudah-Rivers are perfectly cast, wired with an awkwardly cool teen energy, she a mix of innocence and streetwise steel, he jittering with sweaty-palmed earnestness.

“The chemistry is most definitely there, even if it feels deliberately restrained in Jamie Lloyd’s turbo-stylised production, which comes with all his theatrical signature marks: alluring visuals, dark glamour and a tonne of atmosphere.”

Clive Davis, The Times

“Did Tom Holland’s army of fans feel short-changed? The USP of this latest Jamie Lloyd production is, after all, the opportunity to see one of the biggest stars of multiplex cinema in the flesh. All credit to the Brit who plays Spider-Man on the big screen for taking on the challenge of performing modern-dress Shakespeare in the West End. But given how much Lloyd enjoys using digital technology, Holland’s admirers may wonder why they spend a fair amount of the evening watching their idol on a screen. He certainly doesn’t disgrace himself. This Romeo is quiet, fresh-faced and sensitive. In the opening scenes he really does convince you that he is an adolescent adrift, waiting to abandon himself to a doomed romance.”

Sam Marlowe, The Stage

We expect the unexpected from a Jamie Lloyd production, and true to form, the director’s take on Shakespeare’s tragedy of doomed teenage love disrupts and repossesses the familiar story. Some of the techniques that Lloyd employed in his recent, stunning staging of Sunset Boulevard are here: there’s a starry lead performance, in this case from Spider-Man’s Tom Holland as Romeo; a dark, stark aesthetic; and extensive use of live video footage, some of it shot offstage. This time, though, the intention behind the concept is sometimes unclear, and while at its best it heightens the rush of hormonal emotion that drives the drama, elsewhere it has a distancing effect, jolting us out of the narrative and leaving us puzzled as to what exactly this most ingenious of theatremakers is up to. Still – and this is a fundamental on which far too many Shakespearean productions fall down – it’s certainly never boring.”

Fiona Mountford, The i

“This radically stripped-back production is directed by auteur-director Jamie Lloyd, who enjoyed a huge hit last year with his Nicole Scherzinger-starring Sunset Boulevard. Much of the aesthetic for that is replayed here, to markedly diminishing returns: the black costumes, bare playing space and omnipresence of onstage videographers to film the action, which is relayed on a giant screen.

“Once more, there is abundant use of the theatre’s backstage and outside spaces and what seemed exciting for Sunset loses lustre when repeated so soon and so similarly.”

Tim Bano, The Independent

“There are no blow-away performances here, nothing for the ages. How can there be when the actors are so constricted by the production that’s been built around them? As much as it’s meant to be a stripping back, soon those cameras, the constant murmuring, the grinding sounds, the need to be cool ALL THE TIME gets in the way of performances. It imposes too much on them rather than liberating them.

“If it had ended at the interval, it would have been brilliant. Instead, it becomes a thing of diminishing returns. Second-half scenes are too effortful, some have no emotional impact. As for the ending, well, it’s a bit of a letdown. They die, but theatrically: earpieces out, eyes closed, sitting on the front of the stage like bouncers having a nap after a long shift at a warehouse rave.”

Hugh Montgomery, BBC

“With his black-box set, constant, sinisterly humming sound design, and stark lighting, Lloyd seems to also want to make Romeo and Juliet into some kind of nihilistic horror – draining the love story of the light and shade that it should have before it draws to its tragic ending. Holland’s performance particularly suffers, you sense, from being in hock to this determinedly downbeat aesthetic. He has definite stage presence, but a habit of acting out one mood at a time, rather than making his Romeo convincingly psychologically rounded, and towards the end he is reduced to snarling disaffection, Romeo’s emotional tenderness all but forgotten.”

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Romeo and Juliet

Final performance: 03 August 2024