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.
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.