Review: Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare's Rose Theatre, York)

The latest piece at the new pop up theatre in York

Alexander Vlahos as Romeo and Alexandra Dowling as Juliet
Alexander Vlahos as Romeo and Alexandra Dowling as Juliet
© Ant Robling

As the third of four press nights at Europe's first 'pop up' Shakespeare theatre arrives, you can afford at last to let the mind meander away from the wonder of this marvellous theatrical space with its intimate audience experience and instead pay full attention to the production itself.

The Rose Theatre itself is, let's face it, a bit of a scene-stealer but director Lindsay Posner's potent retelling of the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet never lets the building overshadow the oft-told – some might say over-familiar – story of young love.

He sets this production in early 1930s Fascist Italy which doesn't feel like a gimmick but provides a solid, understandable and workable setting for Shakespeare's overheated drama of rival families, gang warfare, street crime and, of course, the angst of a youthful couple entwined in a forbidden love affair.

You can find modern parallels if you want – rival gangs, knife crime anyone? – which is fine for filling in the background but the real focus remains, as it rightly should, on those star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. In Alexander Vlahos and Alexandra Dowling, the production sports a pair of well-matched lovers easily able to convey the agony and ecstasy of young love.

I would be neglecting my duty if I didn't remind you that Vlahos is quite splendid as King Louis XIV's brother Philippe in the somewhat cheesy TV series Versailles. Here he abandons arrogant regal ways as a Romeo with bags of charm mixed with youthful vulnerability as he learns that love actually is prickly and painful. Dowling matches him all the way. She can get away with looking as young as Juliet is meant to be – 13 – while displaying the maturity to cope with their forbidden romance. Wise head on young shoulders kind of thing.

Unusually, it wasn't 'do they look young enough' that occupied people at the interval but more along the lines of 'what do you think about Mercutio?'. The character is played by Shanaya Rafaat and her in-your-face characterisation does become irritating. That may be what the actor was intending but it proves a distraction in the end.

Julie Legrand is a more intelligent, less cuddly Nurse than usual and is all the better for it while David Fleeshman's interfering Friar Laurence brings some misguided humanity to the proceedings.

It's not a short evening – a whacking three hours 15 minutes including interval. And to his credit, Posner keeps the action whizzing along although even he can do nothing to stop the Shakespearean juggernaut slowing down as misery piles upon misery as the story heads towards the inevitable conclusion.