Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Arts Theatre

Production photo

According to the Oddsocks company publicity machine, Shakespeare has ‘never been so amusing’. This is, I fear, hard to believe. A touring production which has played a variety of open-air venues in the last year now makes its London debut, playing to what appeared a steady flow of ardent Oddsocks supporters and a smattering of non-English-speaking tourists.

Fortunately for the tourists, it really didn’t matter if English wasn’t their first language. The slapstick humour was decidedly visual, almost Benny Hill-esque in its retro appeal. Unfortunately, hearing Shakespeare spoken with obscenely ‘cod’ Italian accents (a supposedly humorous take on the play’s location) began to pall very early on. After the umpteenth ‘a-pizza and a-pasta’ joke, the humour soon wore as thin is the plastic-tablecloth-painted set.

Directed by Andy Barrow on a set with ‘multi-media design’ by Kee Ramsorrun, a five-strong cast of performers did their utmost best to inject fun and laughs into a decidedly unfunny adaptation. Neal Craig’s Romeo is by far the most accomplished of the comic characters, Romeo’s eventual death by poison a true moment of comedy in an otherwise tragic (for all the wrong reasons) play.

Andy McGillan’s Friar is mildly annoying as an American preacher, although other parts suit him better. William Finkenrath’s rubber features cannot make up for an impenetrably bad mock-Italian accent, with Tanya Huq as Juliet and Elli Mackenzie as her Nurse making the best of a bad lot.

With the relative expanse of the Arts Theatre stage to negotiate, it is shocking to see actors lined up on stage as if (literally) straight from the humblest school panto. This is a directorial fault and no mistake. The production feels like a group of over-energized and dedicated performers have thrown together a show, listening too often to themselves and not to their audiences, for whom the comedy was as hard to swallow as Juliet’s sleeping draught.

Every good wish to a company that strives to make Shakespeare accessible to a family audience, but with the best will in the world (no pun intended, but that’s pretty much the standard), the venture is hardly worthy of its short-lived West End home. With so much variety on offer, it is difficult not to sound London-centric and snobbish. If, like some of the bemused tourists, you can stomach your comedy very, very undercooked, then this belly-tickling as opposed to side-splitting slice of cold pizza will readily appeal.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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