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Romeo & Juliet (Open Air)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The weather gods smiled on this, the opening night of Timothy Sheader's first season as artistic director at Regent's Park. And if his own production of Romeo and Juliet is any indication of what we might expect, we could be in for some spectacular productions even if this opener misfires somewhat.

Sheader is clearly a man well versed in Hollywood and has drawn on several themes to illustrate the story of star-crossed lovers. He starts off with a replay of the Sharks and the Jets from West Side Story; then goes on to draw on the importance of honour and duty to one's family that we see in so many mafia movies; and has two set-piece choral numbers to complement Romeo and Juliet's wedding and deaths that even the most sentimental Hollywood director would have discarded as too schmaltzy.

There's very little indication that these are two families torn apart by hatred. Ben Joiner's Tybalt, with the ruffled shirt and debonair demeanour of second-rate rhumba crooner is particularly out of place. Tybalt is a man whose violent persona strikes terror in the heart of the Montagues, but this one looks like a refugee from the Edmundo Ros Orchestra. I was also a bit perplexed by Sheader’s suggestion that Tybalt and Lady Capulet are lovers, a spicy bit of aunt-nephew incest that adds nothing to the play.

But the real gaping hole at the centre of the production is the complete lack of passion and sexual energy between the central characters. Nicholas Shaw's Romeo and Laura Donnelly's Juliet have a winsome juvenile charm, but it's the sort that leads to holding hands after choir practice rather than hanky-panky behind the bike sheds. In fact, in their all-white outfits they look more like they’ve stepped out from a washing powder advert than from the mean streets of Verona.

The pair's dispassion begins with Capulet’s party. Too much of the action focuses on Lady Capulet and Tybalt singing some sort of Latin duet, while Shaw and Donnelly play an odd hide-and-seek between the guests. While the titular lovers are the weakest element of the casting, only Clare Benedict’s loquacious Nurse and Tim Woodward’s impressively malevolent and violent Capulet stand out among actors.

Sheader has obviously got a good eye for spectacle – there are a giddying number of costume changes, designer Fotini Dimou must have been kept busy – but the story-telling gets lost between the glitz somewhere.

- Maxwell Cooter


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