Romeo and Juliet is a play about youth, sex, drugs and street violence (among other things). No wonder, then, that it continues to be a very popular teaching text among those who choose plays to work on with teenagers. And no surprise that the first preview of National Youth Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, pared down by Lolita Chakrabarti to be just under ‘the two hours’ traffic of our stage,’ played to an enthusiastic house stuffed to the gunwhales with school parties. The cuts are impressively skilful. All the bits which most adapters drop – the servants preparing for the wedding or Romeo’s fight with Paris outside the vault for example – are in and it’s the first time I’ve heard a word of the second prologue in years.
Set in a 1983 Camden Town street market with racks of clothes marking out territory and doubling as, for example, extra partners at the ball and bodies in the vault, Paul Roseby’s Romeo and Juliet plays up every possible late twentieth century nuance. Sope Dirisu creates, for example, a splendid and very memorable spaced-out, pot smoking (and growing) Jamaican Friar Lawrence – an outstanding piece of work. Another one to watch is Abigail Rose whose young, quite glamorous, big-haired lycra clad nurse finds brashness, vulnerability, warmth and distress in her character along with a healthy eye for the men. It is a fine, exceptionally intelligent and well-controlled performance.
Not that the principals fall short either. Niall McNamee gives us an open faced, innocent ‘Estuary’ Romeo and Aruhan Galieva is a mercurial and attractive Juliet with a lovely trick of laughing for joy. Their balcony scene is so fresh that it’s almost as if you’re hearing it for the first time and I loved McNamee’s precarious balancing on crates to reach her and his boyish exultant gestures when he realises that he’s got her. Simon Lennon’s Welsh Mercutio makes a sparkling job of the Queen Mab speech. Tom Thompson playsCapulet with a drink problem which neatly accounts for his mood swings and aggression. Zainab Hasan is a coarse, blousy, angry Lady Capulet. There’s a great deal of thoughtful originality here.
The ensemble work is strong with characters seamlessly moving flats and simple props into and out of position as they enter and exit. The onstage music on high upstage platforms works very well indeed because it frames the action both visually and aurally. The cast – a talented bunch – play instruments and sing dance music, lyrical numbers and in-period atmosphere setters. There’s a high spot near the very end when Abigail Rose, as fine a singer as she is actor, sings a short quasi-lament.
This excellent show – at Ambassadors Theatre – is part of NYT’s first ever rep season in the West End. As an affordable alternative to drama school NYT has this year recruited a group of young people for full time training leading to four plays in repertory. If the other three are as good I’m sure NYT is on to a winner.