Writer: William Shakespeare, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti
Director: Paul Roseby
Reviewer: Ian Foster
Who better to tell stories of youthful (over-)exuberance than a group of exuberant youths. The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s 2013 Autumn season ‘Coming of Age’ continues with a West End residency of three plays, performed in rep at the Ambassadors Theatre. First up is Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet which relocates the play to the vibrant but cut-throat world of Camden market in the mid-1980s. In the shadow of long dole queues and the rise of a violent sub-culture, this tale of teenage “star-cross’d lovers” is recast in a new light and indeed a new sound, accompanied by a ska and New Wave-heavy soundtrack, performed live to form a cinematically aural backdrop where needed. It creates a vividly energetic atmosphere and one which charges the production with a fresh vibrancy.
This really is a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (or the Specials at least). Aruhan Galieva’s Juliet may be just on the cusp of 15 but she’s confident enough to rock the party with a feisty number and self-possessed to know exactly what she wants. Which is a nice piece of Niall McNamee’s appealing Romeo – he may wear bovver boots but he keeps them clean. Their already swift romance is further compressed in Chakrabarti’s version but the essence is still there – instant headlong passion that demands instant action to escape the constrictions of the world around them which never stops trying to pull them back in. Theirs is a delightful coupling, matched with idiosyncratic verse readings (the ‘Ro-me-o’ on the balcony is inspired) that makes the familiar text shimmer anew.
Small things may niggle – the introduction of a Chorus figure lacks the circumspect gravitas to make us pay attention to their words, director Paul Roseby’s choreographic conceit of using the clothes from the market stalls doesn’t quite feel fleshed-out enough to have the impact it should. But other choices dazzle – Sope Dirisu’s chemical-friendly Caribbean pastor Friar Lawrence is a triumph, Sophie Ellerby’s gender-swapped Tybalt is a fireball of seething resentment who rightly makes mincemeat of an under-powered Mercutio and Abigail Rose’s Nurse – more a kinswoman here – is the vivaciously dominant spirit in the Capulet household and surely a precursor to great things for this actress.
At 100 minutes straight through, the play can occasionally feel a little hurried, but once one becomes attuned to the rhythm of the production and gets a feel for the bottled-up frustration that underscores much of the inherent conflict, there is a huge deal to enjoy here. Not just in the successful adaptation of a classic play but also in the revelation of a multi-talented ensemble who prove equally adept at picking up Shakespeare, a microphone or indeed a keytar.