Saturday, November 24, 2018

Romeo & Juliet – ambitious and memorable (Bright Umbrella Drama Company at Accidental Theatre)

Reviewing last night’s performance of Romeo & Juliet after a day spent reporting from the DUP Conference makes me wonder whether the strife between the Tories and the Democratic Unionists is anything like the tragicomedic Montague/Capulet faceoff in Shakespeare’s play?

The Bright Umbrella Drama Company are less than two years old and this is already their fifth show. Unusually for a fledgling company, there is a wide age range across the enthusiastic cast. Performed in the compact Accidental Theatre space in Shaftesbury Square, the action happened nearly within touching distance of the entire audience.

The exam set text favourite tells the story of forbidden love blossoming between a Montague (Romeo) and a Capulet (Juliet). They marry in secret – with help from her nurse and a Friar – but a cross-community threat results in a couple of murders. When Romeo is banished, Juliet finds a medicinal way of avoiding an arranged marriage to Count Paris, but wakes up to a tragic scene. No one lives very happily ever after.

Director Trevor Gill has festooned the production with modern twists. The gangs wear different-coloured woolly hats and the Montagues have a musical theme when they swagger onto the stage. The young lovers carry mobile phones but don’t ever swap numbers and stupidly never text each other about their daily woes. D’oh! So much needless pain could have been avoided.

Catriona Lilley plays the fair teenage Juliet, clothed in a comfy personalised t-shirt. She delivers her iconic speech to a teddy bear, which robs her deep thoughts of some of their power. Lilley also doubles up in the role of the hip and ever so trippy Mercutio. Juliet’s lover is played by Chris Girvin who is a truly “gentle Romeo”, oozing boyish charm but somehow isn’t as visibly shocked by the news of his new wife’s ‘death’ as I would expect.

Juliet’s Nurse provides most of the comedic moments, with Marina Hampton’s Buckfast-swilling nanny never short of gossip, disguising herself in an outrageous zebra-inspired jacket and flamboyant hat, yet slipping in and out of locations around the city quite undetected. Hampton is confident throwing asides out into the audience and creates something very watchable from her main role.

Chris Darcy demonstrates emotional range as Lord Capulet swings from doting father to dragging his daughter around by her hair and lashing out at everyone in the household, including the poshly-spoken but softer Lady Capulet (Genevieve Swift).

Cathaoir O’Hagan gives Friar Lawrence a bit of the Hamely Tongue. The melange of accents adopted by across the cast does make it hard to pin down where this Verona is based. Tony McGurk plays the ‘young’ Count Paris while Trevor Gill pops up as the Prince of Verona.

Shakespeare’s arcane patterns of speech aren’t always the easiest to follow, so the miming out of some of the most florid metaphors helps everyone follow the plot. Visible demons torment Juliet and Romeo.

The fight scene between Tybalt (O’Hagan) and Romeo is acted out with the ferocity of a stunt scene in a TV drama and becomes the clear fulcrum of the play, tipping it from comic drama to dark tragedy.

The production suffers from some weaker voices that do not always carry across the small theatre space and background music which at times, together with the hubbub of Shaftesbury Square, competes with the dialogue. Some of the original directorial twists work – like the hats and the dipsy nurse – while others, particularly the final dance (a bizarrely choreographed version of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping) and the deliberately misspelt poster board confuse rather enhance.

The single piece of set is a triumph, spinning around to transform it from an outdoor view of the balcony or the forest to bring the audience right inside Juliet’s bedroom. It’s the gift that keeps on giving with characters appearing out of nowhere after many of its spins.

The Bright Umbrella Drama Company have thrown a lot at these two performances of Romeo & Juliet. While some of it is quite raw in its execution, the ambitious production holds together and creates a memorable version of the Bard’s second most performed play.

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