Part of Southwark Playhouse’s Shakespeare for Schools project, this drastically pared-down version of Romeo & Juliet will be shown to 2,000 local young people for free. They certainly won’t be bored: the production is peppered with cheeky ad-libs (“Call a fucking ambulance!”) and whizzes along at just 100 minutes. It has been created in the spirit of good fun, which is lovely in theory but ultimately undercuts the tragedy. When Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers finally take their own lives, it’s a shock – and not for quite the right reasons.
There are lots of good intentions here, but not nearly enough rigour. The framing device is just that – a framework, and little else. Nicky Allpress has relocated Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy to Brixton in the 1980s, and it turns out it isn’t all that timeless after all. There are some projections of riots at the beginning and end and 80s costumes and music are used throughout. Other than that, the loose framing device creates more questions than it answers. Why are two teenagers getting married after knowing each other for just one day? How on earth are they this innocent and why doesn’t someone just pick up a phone?
The frequent ad-libs work pretty well when they’re thrown in separately from the text – but when phrases like “South Laandon” are jammed into the original verse, things get messy. There’s no rhythm and very little sense and some fairly frantic doubling work only makes things more confusing. Joey Ellis has a strong physical presence but he’s landed with playing the Prince, Mercutio and Paris – often in quick succession.
Recent graduate Samuel Tracy plays Romeo as a dazzled innocent, jumping into the air with glee when Juliet (Laura Lake Adebisi) suggests marriage. There’s a lovely fizzing hopefulness about their scenes together but it’s the scenes between Juliet and her nurse (Amy Loughton) that have intensity and clarity. Loughton is a talented comic and bustles about the stage, handing out piles of washing to the audience – but she never once loses control of Shakespeare’s verse. When the nurse discovers Juliet’s cold body, it’s a strangely welcome moment of pathos in this lively but patchy production.