Romeo & Juliet – Southwark Playhouse, London

Author: William Shakespeare

Instructor: Nicky Allpress

Update Romeo and Juliet to 1981 and within the 2-Tone subculture, which promoted racial harmony through music and fashion, certainly sounds good on paper, and a couple of those in the audience old enough to remember the era came in their DMs and Sta -Press. But in the end, Madness and The Specials add little to Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Fortunately, there is still a lot to like in this edited version. Not only is it shorter, it runs in 105 minutes straight through, but there are also only six actors, some of whom double and even triple. The set, neither beautiful nor useful, is also quite economical. This is Shakespeare on a leash. But despite the provisional aesthetics, the star-crossed lovers manage to sparkle.

Located in Brixton, rather than Coventry, home of 2-Tone, there is little sense of who Montagues and Capulets are. There is no explanation as to why they are fighting each other, and the footage of the Brixton riots projected on the set shows only another war, the one between black youth and the police. Sirens sound, and Pork Pie hats abound, but the rivalry between the two families stands outside the 1980s. This production does not help explain the opposition to Thatcher’s early years, nor does it shed new light on this most enduring play.

While the ska beats are often heard in the background, director Nicky Allpress only once delivers real song and dance, and that is, of course, the party where Romeo and Juliet meet. It’s a wonderful moment; the nurse plays the saxophone to the sound of Madness’ One Step Beyond, and the cast breaks out in the pointed jive that 2-Toners adopted. Samuel Tracey’s Romeo is particularly light on the toes. But apart from this one song, the rest of the 1980s is pretty much random.

Tracey’s Romeo and Laura Lake Adebisis Juliet are compelling lovers, and the balcony scene is played very well. Both are enthusiastic teenagers, afraid to say the wrong thing, and try hard not to seem too interested. Adebisi speaks the lines evenly, the meter finds, but still manages to give her Juliet some of her own spark, and the moment she lets go of the fact that her lover is Romeo, she is electrified with excitement. Tracey is just as good and plays Romeo as an innocent even after Tybalt’s murder; Tracey stares at her bloody hands, not quite sure how they have turned red.

As usual Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers are staged by the Nurse, and this production is no different. In a child-storming performance by Amy Loughton, this nurse is a no-nonsense, Welsh busy person who, when washing clothes, hands out Y-fronts to the audience. She gets the most laughs of the evening, and it’s a shame she never takes out her saxophone again. Poor Joey Ellis has to play three roles, but apart from a Crombie, there is not much difference between his Prince and Mercutio; both are shouting and laddish. Better is his silly Paris with the Hugh Grant wig.

Yinka Awani brings a Jamaican twang to Benvolio, and his brother Laurence is a delightful composition of Arthur Daley and quacks. Fiona Skinner plays Julie’s mother, as if she’s a royalty from the East End. It’s a shame that the cast seems to be so busy getting their lines out. Maybe this production would work better with an interval, and then some of the scenes could be played a little slower. Both the audience and the cast might find it more rewarding.

At some point, Awani’s Friar starts talking about isolation and a virus, and while it’s funny, it shows that the 2-Tone era has really been forgotten. As a version of Romeo and Juliet that’s fine, but those who expect a closer connection with the early ’80s might be disappointed.

Runs until February 5, 2022

Reviews Hub result

Not enough fighting on the dance floor.

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