Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
A Customs House Production
South Marine Park, South Shields

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There’s a special magic that comes with the experience of watching theatre outdoors on a balmy summer’s night, but even in August, putting on an open-air production in South Shields is like offering a hostage to fortune. Any tension in the play was matched by the audience anticipation of a storm that hovered in the air but only manifested as a light drizzle, prompting a Mexican wave of waterproofs and umbrellas. Still, a warm, pervasive aroma of fried onions did serve to counteract the chill, and wasn’t entirely inappropriate to this earthy, no-nonsense take on the play. You did feel that Montagues and Capulets alike might enjoy a sneaky hot dog and chips when not busy feuding.

I must admit to some initial dismay when the prologue, having already been spoken, was redelivered by a rap DJ (Kenny Masters, veteran of the Newcastle hip-hop scene) and followed by the sort of stylised stage violence that suggests break dancing is a martial art. Nothing wrong with this approach, but it has to be not only done whole-heartedly, but also announced clearly in advance so that dinosaurs like myself know what to expect. It did, however, successfully engage a very youthful cast in getting over the play’s initial challenge/fight scene, which can feel stilted in modern mouths. And after this opening the production was more conventional in approach, though of necessity it was not just pared down to suit the simple acting space between bandstand and park terrace, but was also clearly designed for an audience who would appreciate the meat of the matter without undue preamble.

And this was certainly as direct a Romeo and Juliet as I have ever seen. Modern dress (which can seem curiously stagy when worn in too self-conscious a manner) here really did create the feeling that these were people you might meet on the streets of Newcastle/Verona. The tight-knit group of Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio worked particularly well in generating a sense of bonded, teasing camaraderie, with horseplay bordering on the aggressive until the moment when Mercutio’s imminent death broke the spell of youthful invincibility. Given that it can come across as testosterone-fuelled masculine posturing, it says much that the energy was generated here by a female Mercutio (Viktoria Kay) who played the part as a woman, a modern "roaring girl", party animal and one of the lads.

In the spectrum from adolescent bombast to teenage angst, Alex Kinsey’s Romeo was definitely at the soft-hearted end, whisked effortlessly into a passion he lacked the experience to control. This was a lad who still had a touch of self-pitying petulance about him, easily moved to tears when situations spun out of hand. Not, perhaps, a hero for love, but a believable boy unprepared for grown-up complications. Rachel Teate’s Juliet I felt less sure about. Her body-language was good, suggesting the self-confidence of a cosseted child who doesn’t really take on board the notion of disappointment or failure, and she looked perfect in her little-girl dress. Her little-girl voice, however, was at risk of becoming annoying when she suddenly turned up the volume and yelled at poor Romeo from the balcony. As the actors were (unavoidably under the circumstances) already miked-up, the effect was ear-bending. Even the most assertive Juliet shouldn’t make you wince when she opens her mouth.

The older generation felt more reliable, with Donald McBride delivering a wonderfully precise Friar Laurence, all orotund vowels and rolling “r”s. I did feel he might possibly have slipped in from a different production, but given that here he was less of a simple friar than the knowing priest of an obviously urban parish, that mannered delivery created a recognisable type. The strongest ensemble playing came from the household of the Capulets, where there was a flawless interaction between Jane Holman’s Nurse, looking and sounding as though she should be serving behind the counter in Greggs, and her rather flash employers. The dynamics of the Capulets’ marriage was instantly apparent – Jill Dellow’s Lady Capulet was the smoother of the pair, apparently sophisticated but brittle and edgy about getting things right, while her husband’s mixture of bonhomie and bluster perfectly caught the self-made man who has become a big shot without ever examining the rules of the game. Tony Neilson’s Capulet was simply a class act, with a strong Geordie voice that only added resonance to the characterisation. With these actors, the scene where Juliet is discovered apparently dead was the strongest in the production, with the bursts of grief and disbelief spoken simultaneously in overlapping and chiming response to the unimaginable.

There were some memorable physical touches, such as the use of a hospital trolley to wheel Juliet away before her funeral, the bandstand did good service as a balcony and, as the rain held off, the increasing darkness was, of course, a mood-setting boon.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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