Review: Romeo & Juliet at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury
Horrified by even a whiff of audience participation or close encounters of any kind (he won’t even eat in Wagamama’s – share a bench and slurp noodles next to someone I don’t even know?! Are you insane?!) I could see my dear husband’s forehead beading up when we got our hands stamped as if entering a club (it’s hazy, but I do remember those days) and walked into The Watermill Theatre, sorry, Capulet’s Bar, for the press night of Romeo and Juliet.
With the band dotted around the bar jamming (‘the band’ being the cast members – bloody annoyingly talented lot that they are) and some of them walking around interacting with the audience, I squeezed Mr P’s hand and thought, ah well, I owe him a beer at the interval. Hmm, maybe a packet of Nik Naks too at this rate. Thankfully the action soon gravitated to the main stage, although the audience sitting at the bar on stools were in for a fun night!
This is Paul Hart’s first production as the new Artistic Director at The Watermill. He wanted to take a new approach to Shakespeare and make something that felt highly original. A tough call for one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays, redone in every format possible including film, ballet, musical, ice spectacular… !
But with fair Verona set in Capulet’s Bar and young actors dressed like they’re off to Glastonbury, plus live music central to the production (original stuff like Mumford & Sons and some new compilations created by the actors during rehearsals) – it’s all hoodies, leather, sweats, and grunge, and A LOT of drinking, and I think he’s totally nailed his own brief. If you loved Baz Luhrmann’s film version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes – you’ll love this fresh, modern take.
The play was cast with leading young actors in collaboration with the National Youth Theatre and for many of them this is their professional stage debut. I’m stunned when I read this in the programme – they truly are a vibrant, energetic and seriously talented group of actors, totally at ease on the stage. In fact, this is such a great production for teenagers to come and see, as it stays faithful to the text, most of the cast are teens themselves, and it really will make them realise Shakespeare was like not boring, and actually like totally rad (really, teenagers don’t speak like that? I really need to educate myself in this species).
Special mention to Juliet (Lucy Keirl) who was absolutely brilliant – you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on stage and she gives the lines such a modern believable truth – I’m just an average teenage girl in present day Newbury, snap-chatting, hanging out and dealing with a lot of crapola. Stuart Wilde delivers a solid performance as a sensitive emo-Romeo all black eyeliner and leathers, and you’ll be pleased to hear there is a little baring of chesticle flesh. *Cougar Alert!*
Benvolio (Victoria Blunt) and Mercutio (Peter Mooney) were fantastic – getting the light and shade in their parts just right and they sparked off each other brilliantly. I also loved Rebecca Lee’s sensitive portrayal of Friar Laurence and Lauren Redding as The Nurse totally stole some of her scenes – to the point where I would sit up in my seat the minute she approached the stage.
Loved Mike Slader’s rough and ready East End mafia performance as Capulet too and Samantha Pearl’s Lady Capulet, staggering around in leopard print dressing gown and heels with either a Martini or an Alka Seltzer in hand. Very Muddy darling! Ooh maybe I could get a walk-on part?
There are some witty little touches such as the balcony scene, ‘But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?’ where the ‘light’ is the end of Juliet’s sneaky ciggie she’s having out of her bedroom window. And clever uses of costume – hoodies donned to show incidental characters, put that gang mentality in your head, and give the fight scenes more menace. Romeo banished from Verona, wears an orange boiler suit with ‘MANTUA D.O.C.’ on the back. I loved the set, and particularly liked the way the floor flipped into the tomb for the final scenes.
In some of the more tender and emotional scenes of the play – Mercutio’s death, Nurse discovering Juliet ‘poisoned’, Romeo and Juliet’s secret marriage – I was genuinely moved and could feel the rest of the audience totally still and absorbed.
If you haven’t been, The Watermill is probably the most romantic theatre you’ll ever visit. It really is ridiculously pretty in terms of its location and design. An ancient mill (200 years old) converted into a theatre in the 60s, it still has lots of its original features, including the waterwheel, wooden beams and corn chutes. When you drive up – particularly at night when it’s lit up – it literally takes your breath away (I genuinely did a kind of little gasp and squeal combo). It’s small and intimate with galleried seating, and for this production has been set in the round, making it even more special.
I think it could have even broken Mr P’s long-term fear of touchy feely environments. Although, we still have to get him over his own personal experience of R&J. Going to an all-boys school someone had to play Juliet – step up (or rather, get shoved forward) a very reluctant Mr P at the height of teenage angst, aged 15. Miraculously, 24 hours before opening night, he developed laryngitis and never did have to seal the doors of breath with a righteous kiss… Personally that is a production I would have loved to watch! Almost as much as this one.
Romeo and Juliet is at The Watermill until Sat 2 April. Tickets £15.50 to £26.50; £10 tickets for 18-25 year-olds for performances from Tues to Thurs.
The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury RG20 8AE. Box Office: 01635 46044. www.watermill.org.uk