Review by Richard Fitt
18th March 2016
Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the most famous love story of all time. Everybody knows it and it has of course been performed countless thousands of times over the last 400 years. So what to do with it to make it fresh for your audience? Well director Barry Thompson decided to set it in the early 60s, that brief period of time when youth was just beginning to become an entity in its own right, in this case in the form of ‘The Mods and The Rockers’ that become infamous for their clashes at seaside towns on bank holidays around Britain. And what a splendid choice that turned out to be. But not only that, he also chose to cast the actors as near as possible to the ages the Bard had intended. The result at first inspection was a full blown youth production.
The set, also designed by the director, was a thinly disguised seaside town, Verona-on-Sea. Using a raised raft like stage for the ‘gang action’, presumably to represent a seaside pier, and a scaffold gallery for the Capulet household which stepped down a level to cleverly form Juliet’s bedroom for the famous balcony scene. All was decorated in floral arrangements as per a sea-front and the whole set worked very well indeed. It even had a scooter (1964 Lambretta) and a motor bike (1962 Norton) on either side of the stage which revved their engines and flashed their head lights to start the play. Very well resourced!
The sound and lighting by Alex McKenzie, James Doughty and Michelle Reading was of the usual high quality one expects of The Mill Theatre.
The play throughout was accompanied by period music with cleverly chosen songs from (obviously) The Who, the iconic band representing the Mods, to Fleetwood Mac, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Sam Cooke and Little Richard to name some of the more famous bands, not to mention a whole host of groups whose names I had long since forgotten such as The Marvelettes and Dick Dale and His Del-Tones. Some three dozen songs in total!
I’ve always loved the opening of Romeo and Juliet with its fight scene between the rival gangs of Capulets and Montagues and this version was as good as anything I’ve seen on the amateur stage with its explosively brilliant action immediately grabbing your attention as the entire cast of teenagers poured onto the stage to a mass ‘bundle’, excellently choreographed by Beth Williams. Mods and Rockers, Verona-on-Sea beach – bring it on!!
Shakespearian English is only easy to follow by a non-Shakespearian audience when the actors have both a clear understanding of what they are saying and an ability of inflection that puts that across to the audience. Although not entirely perfect throughout, this young cast clearly understood that principle very well indeed and were able to put the Bard’s words across with clarity which at times defied their youth. The two well-cast leads, Chris Howes and Stephanie Ornithari-Roberts as Romeo and Juliet carried the action with conviction and confidence and also an obvious chemistry between them. Their bedroom scene after the marriage was particularly poignant.
Amongst the supporting cast, Adam Mason, usually known for his fine musical ability was a very competent Balthasar as were Tim Palmer as Romeo’s best friend Benvolio and Callum Jackson as Tybalt. Sam Robinson as Mercutio was, however, the stand-out performance, with some wonderful comic and dramatic moments and he even got a laugh out of the audience with just a look, not easy in a Shakespearian tragedy.
For the adults amongst the cast there was the splendid David Midlane, who is quite simply one of the finest amateur actors around and gave his usual high-quality performance as a Probation Officer and Father Laurence, Romeo’s confidant and the priest who helps the star-crossed lovers and provides the potion to Juliet to feign death, but whose message to Romeo fails to arrive. But the real gem of a performance had to be Sue Walmsley as Mrs Tull and the nurse, Juliet’s confidant who was most impressive of all. She dominated every scene she was in and almost made Jim Carter’s famous remark in Tom Stoppard’s film script for Shakespeare in Love come true, when asked for a plot synopsis of Romeo and Juliet he replied ‘Well, it’s about this nurse…’
The rest of the supporting cast were equally on-song and overall Barry Thompson successfully fulfilled his vision with some aplomb, A very enjoyable evening all round of a quality standard one now automatically expects from this group.
So, well done indeed to producer Fiona Williams and her team, always a pleasure to visit The Mill Theatre and good to see that the future of the theatre is in safe and assured hands with a fine crop of young actors coming up through the ranks.
Many thanks to Michael Horne for a very informative programme and, of course, to Ian Lawson and his FOH team for their usual top-draw hospitality.
Photographs by David Husband