Romeo and Julie is not Romeo and Juliet. There’s not a Montague, Capulet or even a balcony in sight. Here, the pair go by ‘Romy’ and ‘Julie’, and in place of Verona, they reside in the Cardiff district of Splott. I suspect this loose adaptation was only associated with the star-crossed lovers out of fear that this heartfelt, working-class love story might fail to reach a wider audience – who, it is assumed, are keener to see Romeo and Juliet again, rather than something original.
Thankfully, Gary Owen’s latest play turned out to be original anyway, so much so that it could quite easily have been retitled Bob and Linda. Part romcom, part contemporary exploration of the impact class and ambition can have on a young adult relationship, this is an engaging piece of theatre that pitches the irrational against the rational. It poses the question of whether love should be rejected in favour of a more practical, and crucially – more financially viable – ‘better life’.
Midway through dealing with a ‘poonami’ courtesy of his baby daughter, we’re introduced to Romy, a single father struggling to cope but unable to let go of parental responsibilities beyond his years. Romy later meets Julie, an aspiring astrophysicist with her sights set on Cambridge, and sparks inevitably fly. Both Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy bring warmth and humour to their interactions. As their relationship develops, with an unplanned pregnancy and parental clash, the actors maintain a palpable chemistry that is as engaging as it is authentic.
Rachel O’Riordan directs, with a set designed by Haley Grindle, which is stripped back and suitably adaptable. The lighting is intriguing, with misshapen lightbars hanging above the stage. Are these representative of squiggles from Julie’s notebook? Poorly written equations perhaps? Or do they allude to the cosmos with which she is so fascinated? Bright, beautiful but messy and unpredictable, much like her love affair with Romy. Or, you know, they could be just cool looking lights.
The play’s perfectly drawn characters have clear but layered motivations and the cast each have their moment to shine. Romy’s alcoholic mother, Barb (Catrin Aaron) is armed with just as many one-liners as she is cans of lager. Owen’s dialogue fuses a down-to-earth irreverence with sharp intellect. His script, economical in its pacing, establishes a sense of realism which invites the audience to be absorbed in the world of the play, leaving them hardly any time to question just how likely it would be that every single person on stage is as quick witted as they appear.
The crux of the play is weaved into a standout scene shared between Julie and step-mum Kath (Anita Reynolds). Julie interrogates Kath about the struggles she faced bringing her up, asking why she is so adamant for her to avoid similar struggles with her unborn child, especially after having just admitted that if given the opportunity, she wouldn’t change a day. Here, Kath is acknowledging – in keeping with the romcom aesthetic – that love does conquer all. And yet, she still maintains her belief that for Julie at least, love is not enough.
This is ultimately a play about how parental support and neglect can have equally devastating consequences. Romy and Julie are driven apart because of a combination of Barb’s negligence and Julie’s parents’ blind ambition. Cambridge is presented as an ideal to strive for, far superior to the family life they desire. Love is consistently rendered irrelevant by both families in the face of financial implications that define their futures.
Romeo and Julie may be far removed from its namesake, but it is still a play about how families and societal expectations can drive lovers apart. Owen leaves the audience to question, why is it considered more rational for Romy and Julie to trade in their genuine love for a vague shot at a ‘better life’? With greater support from their parents or even society as a whole, could this pair have had a fighting chance?
- By: Gary Owen
- Director: Rachel O’Riordan
- Photo credit: Marc Brenner
- Cast includes Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy
- Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (previously at National Theatre)
- Until: 29/04/2023
- Duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes (including interval)
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