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Theatre review: Juliet and Romeo by Intermission Youth Theatre

by
26 November 2021

Peter Graystone sees a tragedy reworked

Intermission youth theatre

Cast members in Juliet and Romeo

Cast members in Juliet and Romeo

FIRST things first! Juliet and Romeo is terrific. It’s a gender-swapped adaptation of the Shakespeare play, set very specifically in the summer of 2021 among the gangs of south London. It is energetic, funny, provocative, and very affecting. The lead roles are played with intense and streetwise conviction.

Now the context! It’s performed by Intermission Youth Theatre, a project founded 12 years ago by the Rt Revd Rob Gillion, which uses drama to give disadvantaged young people an opportunity to transform their circumstances. These performances are the culmination of a ten-month programme of workshops and whole-person support. Many of the actors are making their stage debut.

The entirely convincing adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is by Darren Raymond, who also directs. He has set it in a recognisable world of Covid, stop and search, and aspirations funded by drug-dealing. Most of the dialogue is conversational urban slang, but a grey-clad chorus perches on a grey-cubed set (design by Delith Evans) and chants lines from Shakespeare which comment on the action.

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Romeo (occupying the place in the play that would usually be taken by Juliet) has a seemingly impossible dream of going to film school. Juliet (in the opposite reversal) defiantly goes to a nightclub that is the domain of the rival gang. She is smitten with the young man despite all warnings, and yells up at the balcony of his block of flats. They seal their love (and their fate) not in Friar Laurence’s church, but in his tattoo parlour.

There are two alternating casts, and, on the night of the review, the lovers were played with a combination of awkward tenderness and inner-city flint by Tane Armachie Siah and Aaliyah James. It is, however, Niara Rowe who gives the stand-out performance as Mercutio, wise-cracking with youth’s misplaced confidence, and making the “Queen Mab” speech a piece of grimy poetry with all the right Shakespearian echoes.

It seems unfair, though, to single out individuals, because the company work is so exhilarating. They rise to the detail of Raymond’s direction with compelling ease. A mirror is never passed without a sly glance. Glasses steam up. Fight sequences are scarily credible. In the superbly choreographed nightclub scene, at least four stories unfold as tiny subplots in the corners of the room.

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The second half is less assured, and the pace slackens. The comedy that is so sharp in act one becomes intrusive as the piece lurches towards its tragic conclusion. But when that comes, there is a twist that is faithful both to the spirit of Shakespeare and to the contemporary setting. The Friar offers a vision of the transforming possibility of love, but he is shut down: “You can’t save everyone. You’re a tattoo artist, not Jesus.” The end is extremely moving. In the final reversal of the Shakespeare play, we know that this is not the end of violence, just the beginning.

Juliet and Romeo continues at the Chelsea Theatre, 7 World’s End Place, King’s Road, London SW10, until Saturday 4 December, playing Wednesdays to Saturdays. Tickets from www.ticketsource.co.uk/intermission-youth or phone 020 7352 1967.

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