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Romeo and Juliet

Andy Murray is warmed by Shakespeare on a chilly evening in Heaton Park

Published on June 18th 2008.

Romeo and Juliet

It’s not yonder window that light’s breaking through tonight. It’s yonder dirty great bank of cloud, which threatens to let rip at any moment and send punters foraging about for stowed brollies. Thankfully, the light just about wins out, which is good news for the assemblage of rugs, flasks, Doritos and deckchairs here in the handsome environs of Heaton Park’s apiary.

You’ll not have seen so much exaggerated hip-thrusting since you last saw Bottom – by which I mean Rik Mayall’s, rather than Shakespeare’s. Let’s just say certain parts are never knowingly underplayed.

Open-air theatre’s certainly an experience. Veterans are quick to point out the rules to newcomers: chairs set up at the back, please, and tartan throws to the front. Nearby, birds sing, peacocks cry and, occasionally, weird high-pitched alarms shatter the idyll. But there’s just something about engaging with culture out in the elements that can make a chap feel, well, rather pleased with himself.

The production, directed by Elizabeth Freestone for the Globe Touring company, is, out of necessity, simply staged, but very effective. The small, young cast turn their hands to plenty of doubling-up. It’s a bit of a problem with the piece that the titular lovers are really painfully young, and if the performances lack subtle nuances, the characters can simply come across as stroppy, impetuous adolescents.

Here, Dominique Bull walks the line adeptly, and makes for a fresh-faced, fired-up Juliet. As Romeo, local lad Alan Morrissey does at times resemble a mildly miffed boy band member, but on balance he pulls it off winningly. Really impressive is Marsha Henry’s earthy Jamaican take on the Capulet Nurse, whose very human reactions, ranging from lusty to distraught, genuinely engage one with the tale.

Neither a period nor a modern production of the play, instead it’s an impressionistic approach. Characters enter through the doors of a dilapidated camper van, and dress in knee-length shorts and blousons that look suitable for a yachting holiday. Punters hoping for a dash of Baz Luhrmann to the proceedings might come away disappointed, but there are definitely shades of West Side Story in the tribal rhythms, choreography, knife-fights and finger-popping on display here.

Perhaps there’s a tendency on such event-style occasions to enhance the sheer entertainment value of the source material, and certainly the lighter elements of the play are heightened here. Even the celebrated balcony scene between the lovers is milked for laughs. That’s fine, though at times the comedy’s allowed to become too broad, too often for my liking. You’ll not have seen so much exaggerated hip-thrusting since you last saw Bottom – by which I mean Rik Mayall’s, rather than Shakespeare’s. Let’s just say certain parts are never knowingly underplayed. But as the piece draws on and grows unassailably darker in conjunction with the skies above us, all concerned rise to the occasion, and express the full awfulness of the lovers’ fate.

Be fair, what are the odds of being engaged by a 400-year-old play while sitting in the shadow of a bristling communications tower? But this is a canny, inventive production, blessed with a very able cast. Come home time, we hardy culture vultures have been entertained, amused and, yes, even moved. Though admittedly we are sorely in need of a warming cup of tea.

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