As the Sherman Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary year, Emma Schofield reflects on Gary Owen’s new play Romeo and Julie as it makes its debut in Wales, following a successful run at the National Theatre in London.
There’s something about Gary Owen’s re-telling of Romeo and Juliet which pulls the decadence and tragedy of the original back down to earth with a quite an impressive bump. Which is how we find ourselves in Splott for Romeo and Julie, with the story framed within a familiar working class setting and taking Owen, and director Rachel O’Riordan, back to the theatre where Iphengenia in Splott first propelled them onto the wider theatre scene.
The basis of the play remains the same as the original; the frustration of teenagers pitted against the cautious, if misguided, overprotection of their parents. Yet there is a complexity to the characters in Owen’s rendering. There is an openness to the parents’ emotions, they are scared for their children, frustrated with the decisions they seem them making and fearful that the mistakes which they’ve made in their own lives, will repeat themselves. It’s a dynamic played out well between a cast who have plenty to bring in terms of energy and empathy. The only time the casting jars is in the attempts at a Cardiff accent, which hit varying levels of success and could probably have been left out without in any way hindering the broader play.
The interplay between It’s a Sin’s Callum Scott Howells (Romeo) and Rosie Sheehy (Julie) is instantly magnetic and the two bounce well off each other. At the point they meet, Romeo is a struggling single-father, while Julie is an aspiring astrophysicist, with a seemingly starry future ahead of her. Their emotions manage to capture that overwhelming sting of first love, as well as its intensity, which leads them down an increasingly reckless path. The pair really do drive the play, but they are supported by an equally able cast, including Catrin Aaron who is outstanding as Romeo’s alcoholic mother, Barb. Beneath the strength of the cast, however, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that the play’s class tensions are a little forced. We’ve seen this before and, at times, the dynamic between Julie, who has a bright future with a range of opportunities ahead of her, and Romeo, who can barely afford nappies for his baby, feels a little forced. The two come from the same background and yet, their lives are so completely polarised that it’s easy to lose sight of the emotional side of their connection, through the overt politics which sometimes rears its head a little too abruptly.
O’Riordan has wisely kept the staging for this production minimal, with good reason. There is more than enough happening in the drama between the characters; the, frankly, quite bleak emptiness of the stage is a constant reminder that this is a tale which can never have a cosy, happy ending. Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem. Yet whichever way you dress this up and re-write it, there’s an element of predictability to it. We’ve all seen this story enough times before to know exactly what’s coming and, with it, to bring our own preconceptions to both the characters and the plot. It’s near impossible not to compare this to the countless other interpretations of the play which exist within
The play is at its strongest when the focus in on the relationships between this talented cast. The dynamic between Julie and her step-mother, Kath, is a poignant one, grounded in Kath’s frustration with her step-daughter and her desperation to guide her away from the mistakes made in her own life. Of course, it’s not all sad. There are some genuinely funny points within the dialogue and there’s an ease to this lightness which is, at least a little bit, surprising. In the moments where this lightness comes together with the talented cast and the fast-paced dialogue, it really works. Not always perfect, but still a fitting tribute from Owen and O’Riordan, to the theatre which kick-started both their careers in its 50th anniversary year.
Romeo and Julie plays at the Sherman Theatre until April 29th. Ticket information is available here.