In Nicky Allpress’s energetic re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, the eponymous star-crossed lovers leave behind 16th Century Verona for the streets of 1980’s London, finding a city no less torn by civil strife. Breeches give way to braces in this nostalgia-tinged tribute both to Brixton and The Bard. The 80s setting infuses this performance from beginning to end, with audience entering the theatre to find themselves in a raucous Brixton pub, complete with dartboard and hits of the day booming from its jukebox. Throughout the production, contemporary newsreel footage, headlines and music is woven through the action on stage to tie the piece to the chosen setting. This emphasis on the youth culture of the early 80’s injects a restless drive into the production and turns the somewhat aloof nobles of Renaissance Italy into characters more relatable to a modern audience. The transformation is completed by the cast, whose audience interaction and peppering of Shakespeare’s original poetry with perfectly timed contemporary ad libs really serve to increase the intensity (both comic and tragic) of the play.
The updated setting also enables Samuel Tracy (Romeo) and Laura Lake Adebisi (Juliet) to bring to their roles a new and innovative take on the traditional portrayal of these two doomed lovers. Both Tracy’ Romeo and Adebisi’s Juliet deftly capture the rawness and oftentimes awkwardness of teenage love. Tracy delivers Romeo’s sonnets with the love-struck intensity of a 14-year-old and reacts in moments of tragedy with a panic reminiscent of a teenage temper-tantrum. Likewise, Adebisi giggles and shifts nervously on her feet and delivers her lines with a kind of rehearsed concentration which underscores her character’s youth. This emphasis on the immaturity of both characters heightens their fragility and adds a very modern angle to traditional tale of two young lives destroyed.
The other members of the cast deliver their roles with equal skill. Yinka Awoni’s Benvolio is confident and boisterous, his Father Laurence at times hilarious, at others tender. Joey Ellis’s dandified Paris is a great comic interpretation of the character. His Mercutio is a fantastically lewd, brawling and balling street punk. Fiona Skinner as Capulet (father and mother rolled into one) is a force of nature; bursting with charm as she hobnobs with party guests, boiling over with fury in response to Juliet’s defiance. Skinner’s Tybalt lacks some of the feline malice I had expected from the Prince of Cats, but still conveys the character’s latent rage convincingly. Amy Loughton is incredible, perfectly capturing the comic and homely Nurse
All in all, this is a great production and one which I would highly recommend. My only criticism is that the choice of 1980’s Brixton as setting felt a little arbitrary. There is clearly a lot of love invested in bringing to life the music and fashion of the period and location yet it didn’t sufficiently explor the play’s theme. As mentioned above the emphasis on Romeo and Juliet’s immaturity did bring something new to this interpretation, and a focus on modern youth culture helped achieve this emphasis. Having said that, a more recent decade could have had the same or a greater impact. This play is part of Southwark Playhouse’s ‘Shakespeare for Schools’ project, which aims to introduce Shakespeare to young audience. With her production of Romeo and Juliet, Nicky Allpress manages (as did Benvolio during the performance I saw) a bullseye.
- By William Shakespeare
- Director: Nicky Allpress
- Designer: Anisha Fields
- Video Designer Laura Salm
- Lighting & Sound Designers: Alex Musgrave and Asaf Zohar (respectively)
- Cast: Samuel Tracy, Laura Lake Adebisi, Yinka Awoni, Joey Ellis, Fiona Skinner, Amy Loughton
- Southwark Playhouse
- Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (no interval)
- Until 5th February 2022