DramaNorth WestReview

Romeo and Juliet – Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester

Reviewer: Abbie Rippon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: John Young

Picture the scene: a balmy July evening, an ice cold bottle of Prosecco and a night of outdoor entertainment ahead of you watching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in the picturesque Grosvenor Park. Are you tempted yet?

Set in 1950s Italy, the era when the concept of being a teenager first sprang into being, there is a sense of rebellion in the air. Director John Young and his ten-strong cast have done an admirable job bringing  Shakespeare’s most popular work to life. It feels fresh, dangerous and full of zeal. The decision to cut a few fair chunks of the original text hasn’t gone unnoticed; Shakespeare purists might protest at these edits, but this choice supports the vigor, passion and urgency of the show. The text is a bit paired out but the show certainly isn’t.

The cast are strong and generally well suited to their roles. Samuel Awoyo and Joelle Brabban and the title characters are beautifully love struck without being overbearingly soppy. Playful, vital, their beguiling relationship rings very true and the audience are as committed to their relationship as the young couple are themselves.

Eddy Payne’s stand out performance as Benvolio gets the audience on side with the young characters immediately. His playful banter, audience interaction and pairing with Haylie Jones as Mercutio, reminiscent of an early 2000s Sheridan Smith, gives the story the teenage kick it needs to contrast with the tragedy of later scenes.

Robert Maskell as Friar Lawrence also deserves praise, highlighting beautifully the moral challenges and the significant burden of his role in Romeo and Juliet’s tragic story.

For the most part the cast rise to the challenge of the outdoor venue. The joy of theatre-in-the-round is the potential for audience interaction, which the cast play to their advantage. The audience are absolutely invested (even giving the the charming Nicola Blackman playing Nurse a full back rub) and these well executed exchanges with the crowd reflect what Shakespeare’s original intention was. An audience is not a separate entity, they are part of the production. On very brief occasions words are lost in the open air, but open air theatre will always have acoustic challenges.

With composers ME + Deboe working on the production, one might expect more original compositions accompanying the show. However, the folky reimagining of pop music throughout the ages adds to the lively and energetic feel of the production. The musical catalogue from Frankie Goes to Hollywood to The Killers doesn’t quite fit the 1950s setting, but does amplify the themes and meaning of the show, and thus can be somewhat forgiven. Tears for Fears lyrics ‘so glad we almost made it’ are particularly poignant as the show draws to a close.

The look of the production is folky and 50s. Poodle skirts and button down shirts but less Elvis and more earthy. Jess Curtis has worked her magic on the open stage creating a versatile environment for Young and the cast to work with. The transformation of Juliet’s bedroom to the Capulet’s mausoleum is beautiful and haunting, befitting the final scenes of this tragedy.

If you haven’t yet been introduced to Romeo and Juliet, open air theatre (or both), this production is a great place for you to be initiated. If you are an old hand, a ticket to this show will give you a new perspective of this 400 year old show. Grosvenor Park’s Romeo and Juliet feels as fresh as the day it was written, it’s live proof that Shakespeare is for everyone.

Runs in REP until 28th August 2022

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