Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre
Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Adam Harley as Romeo and Jessica Clark as Juliet Credit: Mark Carline

The first production of this year’s Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is Romeo and Juliet and the season has certainly opened in style.

This year, the theatre itself has been re-designed to provide a complete in-the-round experience for the audience which enhances the atmosphere of what was already an evocative space. Artistic Director Alex Clifton returns again and is directing this production as well as The Wind in the Willows which will begin next week with the season being completed by The Merry Wives of Windsor which will be directed by Rebecca Gatward.

After initial concerns regarding the weather, the performance begins with members of the cast leading the audience in an Italian sing-along which chases away the clouds and sees the skies clear in time for the first scene. It also helps to place the production in context, it being set in what seems an Italian rural environment, almost like the early Godfather movie.

The feuding families of Capulet and Montague make perfect sense in this environment, as does the prevalence of violence with some fight scenes that are brutally graphic in their performance. It is testament to the performances of the two leads that they manage to seem almost removed from the constant strife and in the world of their own that young love brings.

Jessica Clark, returning to Chester to play Juliet after starring as Mary in The Secret Garden last summer, shines like the late afternoon sunshine as the wilful yet besotted teenager with delivery that has the audience both engrossed and amused. Adam Harley is the perfect foil as a playful Romeo who finds every aspect of his new love irresistible and expresses it with such enthusiasm it’s almost painful knowing what is coming next. These two make an excellent couple and, if the reaction of today’s audience is any gauge, will prove very popular over the season.

However, the inevitable plot must unfold to shatter their idyll and does so in a quite unnerving manner. Until now, the production has been refreshingly light-hearted for which Graham O’Mara as Mercutio and Thomas Richardson as Benvolio are largely responsible. They both interact with the audience, which is very well received, climb into the theatre and Mercutio even mimics the Scottish lilt of Romeo to great effect.

All this changes when Tybalt, menacingly portrayed by Tom Connor, produces a knife and sets in course a chain of events that sees Mercutio slain. The reaction of both Tybalt, who shows unexpected remorse, and Romeo, who exudes uncontrollable rage, is striking as both actors skilfully display another dimension to their characters.

Familiarity does nothing to blunt the poignancy of the final scenes and the production is so powerful that even the evening sun streaming down is unable to prevent the engrossed audience from imagining a darkened tomb.

Alex Clifton and the cast deserve huge credit for producing such a strong performance despite the earlier weather concerns which cannot be ideal preparation for cast and crew. This production of Romeo and Juliet is engrossing, enchanting yet inevitably tragic and leaves us anticipating the other two plays in the repertoire.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings

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