Review: Romeo and Juliet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

There is no doubt that Amy Leach is a talented theatre director. She's shown it previously at the West Yorkshire Playhouse with Little Sure Shot and Kes and she shows it here too with Romeo and Juliet.Choosing to stage Shakespeare's most famous tragedy was a brave move. Choosing to cast the action against contemporary gang culture even braver. It's been done a thousand times before and not always successfully.

Tessa Par and Dan Parr in Amy Leach's Romeo and Juliet.
Tessa Par and Dan Parr in Amy Leach's Romeo and Juliet.

Leach avoids the most obvious pitfall of appearing to shoehorn play into a modern setting for the sake of it and does for the most part create a complete new world, one with boxing gyms, gritty wastelands and just a little bling.

It’s a production which is at its most successful during the first half, which also includes a space fancy dress party at the Capulets? Why? Who cares? It works.

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The cracks, however, begin to appear post interval. While the first half packs in pretty much a gag a minute - mostly thanks to Susan Cookson’s innuendo loving Nurse - it sits oddly against the resulting tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, so beautifully played by Dan Parr and Tessa Parr as self-obsessed teenagers in the first half, end up both two dimensional and unconvincing as they manfully attempt to scale the steep trajectory between dancing next to a giant alien and well, death.

There are other problems too. As the proud owner of many flat vowels I am all for regional accents in Shakespeare, but can’t help but feel that Brummy doesn’t serve Benvolio’s most heartfelt speeches well.

Leach clearly wanted this to be a story for our post-Brexit times and there are glimpses of what could have been. Jack Lord is a commanding presence as Lord Capulet, a tattooed boxing promoter with a trophy wife. Unfortunately, Lord and Cookson aside in this pared back version the rest of the supporting characters lack the dramatic muscle which might have given this production much-needed weight.

There are good financial reasons for staging Romeo and Juliet. A staple on the school syllabus it guarantees decent tickets. It also generally guarantees much fidgeting and audible yawning. Not here. Whatever the faults of this production, it kept its target audience entertained and perhaps even proved to a few that Shakespeare is still relevant. Right now maybe that’s enough.