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Review: Romeo + Juliet

Chris Owen appreciates the music and modernising in this Shakespearean classic - but perhaps it's all too much of a good thing

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Image: Scott Rylander

Venue: York Theatre Royal

The Watermill Theatre's Romeo and Juliet graces the York Theatre Royal's stage as part of 2017's York International Shakespeare Festival, with the same small cast alternating between their modern telling of the iconic suicide romance and their jazz-age production of Twelfth Night. Paul Hart's direction and Katie Lias' design coalesce for a wholly enjoyable piece of stylish and characterful contemporary theatre, that is only occasionally bogged down by that very zealousness.

With modern updating, Watermill's production treads well-worn ground, and that means navigating all the usual potholes and pitfalls. Running around live-music club 'Capulet's', indie-kid Romeo and Juliet (Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva) have the deceptively difficult task of making a 15thCentury whirlwind romance work in plaid shirts and skinny jeans, and they give it a good go; Galieva reimagines Juliet as bubbly and headstrong and Wilde makes a decent go of heart-of-gold gangster-gallantry. The latter has the biggest challenge - how do you make chivalrous murderer work as a post-masculine millennial? - and Wilde does his best, but there are speeches that would benefit from more thorough excavation, to pin down the exact terms of his chosen characterisation.

The rest of the cast are equally strong - Lauryn Redding is consistently scene-stealing as the maitre d' cum lady's maid - though they seem to be working with different degrees of textual modernisation. Redding sets the comic tone as a snarky, daft and ironic and this means that when the more serious stuff comes along it generally feels anachronistically-pitched. Soliloquies also need more thought - some that should be self-addressed are erroneously audience-addressed, in one of a couple of textual oversights.

The set design is effective and dynamic - though not always suitably adaptable - and the inclusion of contemporary pop music is very successful. Hozier, Mumford and Sons and The Vaccines are all worked in cleverly and without friction, and the live-band stylings are the production's most enjoyable feature, co-ordinated as they are with great fluidity and tonal sensitivity. The chorus idea doesn't really work, but the physical theatre does; both together feels like too much.

Watermill's Romeo and Juliet is an accessible and fun production that manages to be both stylish and slick but also rough-around-the-edges, and this works to its favour. It would benefit massively from less theatrical clutter. Live band, and chorus, and interpretive dance? Pick any two of three.

Image: Scott Rylander

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