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Review: Romeo & Juliet – Guildford Shakespeare Company

A Georgian cameo: actors silhouetted behind Holy Trinity’s rood-screen.

By Alice Fowler

Great plays never date, as the Guildford Shakespeare Company prove with their new production of Romeo & Juliet. This a fresh, vibrant and magical show, lit up by two talented performers, Lucy Pearson and Ricky Oakley, in the title roles.

Pearson in particular shines as Juliet: a young woman (almost 16, in this GSC version) by turn demure, mischievous, impatient and impetuous. So human, in fact, is Juliet that the twists of the plot flow naturally, for we can believe that she and Romeo truly are in love.

…a fresh, vibrant and magical show

The action unfolds in Holy Trinity church, where the GSC last staged Romeo & Juliet eight years ago. Director Charlotte Conquest and designer Neil Irish make good use of the church’s fine interior. The ornate Victorian rood-screen screen frames the drama, with silhouetted figures often visible behind it, and also functions as Juliet’s balcony.

Bathed in red: the sinister masked ball

A masked ball scene, bathed in red light, in which the older generation dances grotesquely, is particularly effective. At its close comes the coup de foudre as Romeo and Juliet glimpse one another and the play’s fateful course is set.

Benvolio (Robert Elkin) and Mercutio (Jack Whitam) befriend Juliet’s nurse (Harriet Thorpe)

With two such convincingly youthful leads, the production becomes as much about parenthood as passion. West End actress Harriet Thorpe, familiar from Absolutely Fabulous and The Brittas Empire, brings flirtatious humour and warmth to the role of Juliet’s nurse.

In it together: Juliet (Lucy Pearson) and her much-loved nurse

Sometimes teasing, sometimes scolding, she leaves us in no doubt of her deep love for her young charge. GSC co-founder Sarah Gobran, by contrast, as Juliet’s mother, is cold and distant: a mother who has resolutely ignored the parenting manuals and pays a heavy price.

Balancing the lovers’ tenderness is the hatred between the two rival families, Montagues and Capulets. The GSC never shrinks from a sword fight, and there are plenty of flashing, clashing blades on show as Mercutio (Jack Whitam), Tybalt (Rikki Lawton) and Romeo spar across the stage.

Romeo (Ricky Oakley) slays Tybalt (Rikki Lawton)

Death comes quickly, in a rapid, angry thrust: just as it does today, in our age of knife and gun crime. It is left to GSC co-founder Matt Pinches – a dignified, unhappy Prince – to bring these warring factions under some semblance of control.

Star-crossed: the young lovers await their fate

Noel White, familiar to GSC audiences from recent productions of King Arthur and Julius Caesar, plays Friar Lawrence, whose well-intentioned plan to help the lovers spectacularly backfires. As the final scenes unfold beneath Holy Trinity’s gleaming mosaiced dome we can only weep with the young lovers; and wonder how the grown-ups have allowed things to go quite so badly wrong.

Romeo & Juliet runs until February 24. Box office 01483 304384; www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk

 

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