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Review: Romeo and Juliet (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Erica Whyman directs this youthful and energetic take on Shakespeare's tragedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Karen Fishwick (Juliet) and Bally Gill (Romeo)
Topher McGrillis © RSC

The beginning's a bit naff, the end a visual anticlimax and the textual chopping about all rather clumsy and unhelpful. But there's something about the drive and vitality of this compellingly-told thriller that picks you up by the scruff of the neck and drags you along with it for the best part of three exciting, rollercoaster hours.

You can see the logic behind Erica Whyman's modern-day setting, placing the Montagues and Capulets in a parallel universe to our own, where knives are the primary weapon and street girls are just as tough and abrasive as any of the boys. The play is almost permanently on the school syllabus, and this accessible, urgent version will certainly appeal to younger members of the audience. Hoodies and Doc Martens abound, accents are raw and brutalist, and there's precious little reverence for Shakespeare or his language.

What the production lacks in subtlety or nuance it more than makes up for in exuberance and energy. The bold, brash take on what is perhaps literature's greatest love story turns it into something else: a very personal tragedy that resonates with a much wider reverberation. That's where the thriller element kicks in so forcefully and effectively, and it's where the show is at its strongest.

Charlotte Josephine (Mercutio) and Josh Finan (Benvolio)
Topher McGrillis © RSC

The passion and swagger of Bally Gill's infatuated Romeo are emblematic of the overall verve of the production. He's utterly convincing as the smitten would-be hero, half show-off and half sensitive new man. He leaps from doe-eyed devotion to reckless rage with ease, constantly gripping to watch and totally in control of the material.

Opposite him, Karen Fishwick's Scottish-brogued Juliet achieves the near-impossible, creating an authentic 13 year-old who matures with alacrity in the face of disastrous fate as her family and future disintegrate before her eyes. She endows Juliet with a compassion beyond her years, while maintaining the contrite naivety of the dutiful daughter. Together, she and Gill are simply delightful, and if ever there was a pairing you could really root for, this is it.

Behind them, they each have a powerful and impressive supporter. Juliet's is her nurse, played as a cheery, lovable pseudo-mother by the beautifully-judged Ishia Bennison. Romeo, meanwhile, takes his counsel from Andrew French's thoughtful Friar Laurence, here imbued with real presence and wisdom, albeit misguided and destined for catastrophe. The mirror image of the two advisers provides an intelligent and useful counterpoint to the central characters.

The cross-gendered casting is more of a mixed bag: Beth Cordingly's Prince Escalus cuts a fine dash, but Charlotte Josephine's Mercutio looks and sounds too much like an oversized Artful Dodger to work successfully for me. Equally, Sophie Cotton's deliberately harsh, downbeat musical score is more often a hindrance than a help, while Tom Piper's stark design creates a barren, bleak backdrop to the frenzied action.

But, thanks to some winning performances and the relentless energy of the whole company, a youthful spirit and a dogged focus on unfolding this heartrending story ultimately lift the production above the realms of the ordinary.