Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, is a notorious weepy, but until Immersion Theatre’s adaptation at the Brockley Jack this week, I’ve never had to wipe away so many tears of laughter.
It’ll never be my first choice in Will’s back catalogue, but this is the funniest, freshest telling of an often tiredly told tale you’re likely to see for years.
Set during the miners strikes of the mid-1980s, the opening scene packs a mighty punch, with the whole auditorium seeming to freeze as a mob of seething pickets roar silently, in slow-motion.
It’s an astonishingly effective theatrical trick that had me on the edge of my seat. Having almost fallen asleep during the last Romeo and Juliet I saw – I’m not naming names – I had high hopes.
Enter Tybalt (Harry Anton looking and acting like the bastard son of Fassbender and Tom Hardy), to screams of ‘scab!’. He’s kicked to the ground in a violent attack for daring to break the line. This R&J has a fight director (Matt Gardner), and he does a top job given the snug space he’s got to work with.
Director James Tobias argues that Tybalt has long been underwritten, and deliberately elevates the character from stock villain to a three-dimensional wronged man that we can relate to.
This decision to draw every character out of their stale stereotype works wonders. Transcending labels leaves our traditional rivals truly “both alike in dignity” and amplifies the tragedy when it happens.
I have no idea why Anton isn’t yet a household name. Tall, muscular, bearded, and brooding, the moment he appeared on stage his whole presence screamed leading man, a Macbeth (I checked the programme during the interval and he’s spent the summer doing just that) or Henry V at least. Get that man in a bloody big-screen battle scene, stat.
James G Nunn and Dan Dawes as Benvolio and Mercutio, daft drunk lads with not the slightest idea or care of what lies ahead, have a wonderful chemistry, energy and spot-on comic timing that brings explosive laughter from the crowd.
Nunn’s CV’s been a mixed bag so far but he immediately jumped out as one to watch, a flawless young actor with, fingers crossed, huge things ahead.
With flatcap, grin and a sort of cocky, working class, street attitude, he’d be a perfect fit for Peaky Blinders or Ripper Street. But even if he’d been cast as Romeo here he would have excelled just as well.
It is the delivery of lines that give the performance its freshness and originality – adjectives often banded around in theatre that rarely prove accurate.
Going against everything traditionally taught in training, and everything we’re used to from our great thesps, one almost forgets we’re listening to Shakespeare at all.
The words fall out so naturally, and blend so seamlessly into the occasional contemporary diversion (Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out! Out! Out!), that setting the story into a riotous ‘80s mining town, grates not an inch.
Immersion provides a masterclass for theatre companies looking to update these classic stories for new audiences. To be fair, you’re already half way there if you can get Billy Idol’s White Wedding into Shakespeare.
To the titular couple. Simone Murphy and Clive Keene make the cutest lovers imaginable.
Both looking younger than their years, there’s no wincing from me during those awkward lines about Juliet only being 13, but give it a year or two..
They’re incredulous to the tragic events their puppy-love will invoke. It’s the selfishness and irrationality of young love personified and a great piece of casting.
By no means a criticism of Murphy and Keene but Tobias has allowed the traditional supporting characters enough of the spotlight for this to truly be an ensemble piece, encompassing Romeo and Juliet’s saga, not merely rotating around it.
With such an incredibly strong band of players, it was the perfect decision. Rochelle Parry as Lady Capulet is still cold, still ambitious, but ultimately a mother who only wants what’s best for her beloved daughter – however Juliet may interpret it.
James Sanderson as Friar Laurence, and the simply stunning Roseanna Morris as both the Nurse and Lady Montague are, again, just flawless.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people still consider theatre to be an expensive, elitist, pasttime. I have never seen tickets at the Brockley Jack selling for more than £15 a head, and at no point yet have I left a show without giving it four or five stars.
There are so many vibrant young theatre companies out there putting on shows with a low-budget but still top notch production values, and incredible skill, to blow the West End away.
Plus, the bar’s half the price. It’s no surprise Immersion’s Romeo and Juliet sold out immediately (a shame, I was tempted to come back on Friday to see it again) but you can, and should, catch them elsewhere on tour.
Remaining touring dates:
November 3, Harlequin Theatre, Redhill
November 4, Broadway Theatre, Barking
November 6, Stur-Exchange, Dorset
November 12, Camberley Theatre, Surrey
November 13, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury (Walker Theatre)
November 17, Sundial Theatre, Cirencester
Immersion Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, is a masterclass for other theatre companies looking to update the classics for new audiences. You’re already half way there if you can get Billy Idol’s White Wedding into Shakespeare.