Romeo and Julie – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Gary Owen

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

While the National Theatre is having considerable success in its larger spaces, the programming for the flexible Dorfman theatre is far more variable. Following the disappointing Kerry Jackson, its latest show Romeo and Julie is a pleasant but conventionally plotted reflection on working class aspiration, family and love across a divide. But it skirts along the surface of a number of deeper issues including alcoholism, education and economic deprivation and Gary Owen’s new play takes the characters exactly where you expect them to go.

18-year-old single father Romeo, known as “Romey”, is devoted to the baby daughter left with him by Neve’s mother who had wanted to give her away. Caring for her and his alcoholic mother starts to take its toll, but soon he meets sixth-former Julie, aspiring to study physics at Cambridge and whose parents worry Romeo will distract her. Is it just a fling or is this young couple destined to be together?

Owen’s play may use aspects of Shakespeare’s structure and nod to one of his title’s but there is a lack of jeopardy in the relationship between Romeo and Julie that lowers the stakes. There are no families at war, only two young adults with very slightly different backgrounds and, when Julie’s mother asks her immediately to stop seeing Romeo after one late night because he might disrupt her studies, it seems a flimsy basis on which to object to a boy she has never met nor has any proof he will push Julie off the rails.

There are some nicely managed scenes with Romeo and his baby, capturing exploding nappies, sleepless nights and the deep love he has for his daughter which is sweet but also filled with complexity about the life he lives and will live for the next few years. Most of Act One focuses on his story, homelife and contentment with the here and now, but Owen’s never really examines Barb’s alcoholism in any detail, its effects on Romeo as he tries to provide for and protect his baby or the economic straits it must create. Romeo, quite purposefully, is a character who stays the same but the audience never fully understand him.

Julie comes into focus in Act Two as their relationship flourishes, pushing her to make different choices about the academic future she has always aspired to. None of the twists Owen has in store for Julie come as much of a surprise; part of a dramatic tradition that always asks female characters to compromise self-fulfilment for family, the former loaded with judgement and the latter with sentimentality. But through the process she goes, although she has some interesting arguments with parents and her partner.

The two central performances are deliberately heightened, giving them an overt comedy that gets some laughs but occasionally distracts from the serious underpinning commentary and neither fully convinces as an 18-year-old. Rosie Sheehy is a likeable Julie, loud and confident but sure of the path she wants to take and her worthiness for it. There is strong chemistry with Callum Scott Howells as Romeo and they make a believable couple, while he presents a mix of decency and male arrogance.

There are some good comic lines and a number of lively scenes in Romeo and Julie, especially those involving father Col (Paul Brennan) who has endured years of manual work and ill-health to create a future for his daughter and the hardness he develops when she rejects it. Yet, there is so much more to say beyond the love story and the will she / won’t she trajectory, about communities who see education as a way out as well as the inter-generational inheritance of aspirations for betterment that mean eventually someone escapes, but most are left behind.

Runs until 1 April 2023

The Reviews Hub Score:

Conventionally plotted

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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