Romeo and Juliet – Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Reviewed performance on 26th October 2023

I don’t usually start a review with a strong recommendation, but for this production of Romeo and Juliet I am glad to make an exception. This is an excellent show and well worth seeing if you can before the run ends on 18th November.

The Royal Exchange Theatre is a beautiful exchange building with its amazing, space age, staging space that is superb for performances in the round.

This new production directed by Nicholai La Barrie, and starring Shalisha James-Davis (Juliet) and Conor Glean (Romeo), takes Shakespeare’s tragic tale and places it into a Manchester with all of its modern sensibilities, its swagger and its language.

A photograph of the lead actors as Romeo and Juliet
Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The cast speak with authentic Manchester accents throughout and, although some purists might not like it, it effectively brings the story home to a modern audience in a northern city. When members of the Capulets, and Montagues, speak to their cousins the pronunciation “cuz” (with typical deep uh sound) feels very natural.

We began with a comic moment as the friar, apparently an audience member with ticket issues, argues with an usher before staggering onto the stage, shopping bags and all, to deliver the opening speech. The audience clearly enjoyed the small changes to the script to reference Manchester and when directions to Ashton Road were given there was lots of laughter.

The aggression and violence between the two families was portrayed with some gusto and weapons ranging from traditional swords to the more modern kitchen knives, baseball bats and even a Stanly knife. 

When delivering soliloquies the actors addressed the audience directly, often moving from person to person, making eye contact and really engaging with them. The audience were also engaged in the scene where Romeo sees and finally meets Juliet at a party in the Capulet’s castle, when audience members joined in with the dancing as Juliet acted as DJ and singer. The mood and action would have been in keeping with any present-day party or club in Manchester. Romeo meanwhile is the only one in the room who doesn’t want to dance and party, at least not until he has the chance to meet Juliet. 

In the original Shakespeare version Romeo goes to a poor and somewhat desperate apothecary to illegally buy his poison. Here, in a stroke of genius, Romeo goes to street drug dealers, dressed all in black as they circle the stage on their BMX bikes, and the deal is done in a way that is familiar to many of us who have seen such deals taking place on the streets.

The funeral scene was extraordinarily powerful with somber lighting, thunder and lightning flashes and water falling on stage as rain as the mourners gathered around the “dead” Juliet, protected by black umbrellas.

The story is tragic but there were times of absolute joy and comedy, and the director and actors hope to bring something new out of the story with hope and understanding. Romeo actor, Conor Glean, asked about what he’d like audiences to take away with them, said “I want them to come away and see a young couple walking down the street, holding hands, smiling at each other and I want them to be moved by that. I want them to look at the softness in the world and think ‘yo’, let’s give some more time to that, please’”. Co-star, Shalisha James-Davis, agreed, saying “Yeah, absolutely. Like, double-tap that!”. As a no-longer-young couple walking back to the station, holding hands and smiling at each other, I’d say we agree with that sentiment completely. 

The cast as a whole put on a great show and the outstanding performances for me included;

Conor Glean, who portrayed Romeo as a rough around the edges, thuggish young man who is changed when he falls in love with Juliet. His delivery of lines like “Love is heavy and light, bright and dark, hot and cold, sick and healthy, asleep and awake – it’s everything except what it is!” was direct and powerful, perhaps not the typical dramatic performance we might expect, but very effective indeed.

Lady Capulet, brilliantly played by Kate Hampson, as a female head of the family rather that the traditional patriarch, is exactly what you would expect from the matriarch of a Manchester gangster family, pushy and strong and able to switch from supportive to oppressive in an instant. This Lady Capulet is the kind of Manchester mum you wouldn’t want to cross.

The character of a dark and moody Mercutio from David Judge was delivered superbly. Judge became an intimidating gangster, with an attitude much larger than his stature, and could turn on a kind of sinister charm that in turn was even more unsettling.

The play runs until 18th November, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. As I said at the start of this review I suggest you should go and watch it if you get the chance.

Imposter Syndrome

What is it, why do we get it and what can be done about it?

Giclée print of Pelican - shown in frame for illustration only
Giclée print of Pelican – shown in frame for illustration only

Almost everyone will at some time suffer from the thing we call imposter syndrome.

In strict clinical or psychological terms it is specifically used to describe a situation where the person with the syndrome has a persistent internalised fear and it can often be accompanied by other mental health issues.

In common language the definition is not so rigidly applied and it is essentially the feeling that we are somehow not sufficiently suitable, capable or qualified enough for the situation we are in. Suffering from imposter syndrome makes you feel like a fraud. I believe that it is perfectly possible to feel confident and competent in some areas yet feel the opposite in others. This is the definition I am using in this article.

One of the side effects of this type of imposter syndrome is the need to excessively prepare; for example if you are going to make a presentation to a group of people you would run through it again and again, you might well practice later into the night to be sure you are ready, you might spend the journey to make the presentation running through it in your mind. You may be tired and stressed by all the preparation yet the presentation will still go well but you are then sure that it only went well because of all the preparation that you did.

At a lesser level the feeling might prevent you telling people what you can do. As a professional freelancer you need to tell people what you can do, you need to promote your own abilities; that is tricky when the syndrome keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough.

Among the wide variety of work I’ve done is SOME illustration. I’ve designed a handful of book covers, I’ve been commissioned to produce drawings, I’ve edited books, I’ve created illustrations for instruction manuals and for training courses ranging from photography, digital imaging to bicycle maintenance. I’ve made illustrations for cards etc. Yet when asked to make some illustrations for a film my head shouts at me “you’re not an illustrator, why don’t they get a real illustrator?”

So I tell myself that “people have paid me to do illustrations for them, I’ve made illustrations for various jobs, therefore I am an illustrator” but in my head that nagging voice stills says “What if you can’t do it? What if they find out that you are a fraud?”

Illustration for book cover

As a poet I’ve performed in little open mic venues and on festival stages. I’ve learned how to work the room, how to use a microphone and how to pace my performance. I have run numerous workshops for all ages from 5 to 80+, I’ve led poetry writing projects and produced books.

I’ve had poems published in books and online and I’ve been interviewed for radio programs. I’ve been commissioned to write poems and am paid at a proper professional rate. With all of that I can call myself a professional poet, BUT there is that voice again; “you’ve not had a book in Waterstones, you’ve not been on television, you’ve not Amanda Gorman, Tony Walsh or Alfred Tennyson….”

That voice is sometimes hard to ignore. That voice is the imposter syndrome.

Feeling the need to produce good quality work is not imposter syndrome.

Feeling pressure to do better is not imposter syndrome.

Wanting to be the best you can is not imposter syndrome.

Those things are about ambitions, but handle ambition with care because it can lead to making unhelpful comparisons. Every poet is different, we each have our own styles, our own interests and create our own unique work. Whilst ambition to be better is good, ambition to be the next Armitage, Sissay or Duffy is not so good.

I don’t want to be the next Seamus Heaney, I want to be Seamus Kelly. I want to write, draw and create as Seamus Kelly. One place where I cannot possibly be an imposter is in being Seamus Kelly.

You have to be yourself. You have to stop comparing yourself in a competitive way to others. You have to stop putting yourself down. You have to stop undervaluing yourself, your skills, your work and your creativity.

You have to do all that whilst that voice says “fraud”, and you have to credit yourself for successes. The voice may never shut up, but using facts, actual things you have and can do, to tackle it can make things better.

Don’t be the next Picasso, Mozart, Wordsworth or Neruda – be you, look for the value there.

I’m not suggesting its easy, or that it can be done without help. My help comes from fellow creatives and from my wife. It comes from the person who comes up to thank me after a performance because a poem reminded them of their mother, it comes from faces listening for the next words. It comes from the workshop participant eager to share what they’ve written. It comes from the requests for me to produce creative work. All of those things are needed to quieten that voice, to confidently say “I’m not a fraud”, (and at least most of the time to believe it).

Poetry by the Canal – progress update

A line drawn image of Rock Nook Mill on the Rochdale Canal

Six weeks in and the poets I’m our project have been producing some really good writing. Those new to writing poetry and the experienced poets in the group have found inspiration and have shown great enthusiasm, extending to supporting each other, testing out their poems and sharing them with us. It has been an honour to work with such a great group of poets.

We have also had excellent meetings with, and feedback from, the Canal Rivers Trust and with the Poetry Society and Roy MacFarlane, the Canal Laureate. Although it is too early to give details yet, I can say that we have exciting developments coming up.

With over 30 poems already submitted, and more to come, my work in editing and formatting is now underway and it is actually really quite good fun and inspiring.

There will be one final session before the work is compiled ready for production of a large print book which is likely to be launched early in 2024.

Squeezing Stones

I’m very pleased to have provided illustrations for an excellent short documentary film “The Zen Art Of Stone Squeezing”, directed by Harry Wheeler and produced by

The film is not yet released for public viewing but is currently being submitted to film festivals. I will share details once the film is released. I had the chance to see the prerelease version to produce the illustrations I think this is an excellent short documentary and very powerful.

Image of poster for the film featuring John Mounsey and his dog

Having family members who were capable dry stone wallers I particularly enjoyed creating my graphics of a dry stone wall which grows from 1m to 6m through the film.

An image of my drawing of a dry stone wall, white lines on a black background