Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Caroline Clegg
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
Two households, both alike in dignity… in fair Heaton, where we lay our scene? That is the version of The Bard’s famous prologue which audiences are hearing this summer, as Feelgood Theatre Productions brings the timeless love story to Grade I-listed Heaton Hall and the surrounding park.
This promenade production takes its audience on an atmospheric journey around the park. As day becomes night, the grassy verges, nearby woods, and Palladian facade of the hall resound with the rhythms of Shakespearean verse, but also with some modern Mancunian touches. The lovers first woo while party guests hum Elbow’s One Day Like This, and then Juliet sings Fleetwood Mac to her love from the balcony. Later, we make a funeral procession through the echoing rooms of the hall – an eerie treat. We’re eavesdropping explorers, drawn into the action and following the characters around.
The play begins with a framing device that suggests we’re watching some theatrical ghosts who haunt the hall. It’s a shame that this conceit is abandoned after the first five minutes as if the cast just needed an excuse to get going. It’s left to us to flesh out the comparison that the cast barely start to make, between the play’s feuding families and modern gang rivalry.
Time-traveling opening done, we settle in to enjoy the doublet-and-breeches drama, yet not all of the costumes live up to the majestic beauty of the setting. Paris gets a dapper floral waistcoat, for instance, and Lady Montague an imposing, high-necked black ensemble, but we only see these characters briefly compared to Romeo and Juliet, whose costumes are much less fun to look at. And the neon-bright swathes of ruffled fabric that they don for the ball scene are a little ridiculous.
Luckily, the lovers’ story is enthralling enough for its own sake. Ned Cooper’s Romeo is a self-assured young man who seems shocked by his own violent reactions as he falls in love with his enemy and suffers the consequences. Nia Coleman as Juliet brings the same delicacy to the role as she does to the music within it – her smooth soprano is delightful. The whole cast confidently inhabits the Shakespearean mode, especially the pitch-perfect Nicola Jayne Ingram as Juliet’s world-weary northern Nurse.
Director Caroline Clegg has a few surprises up her sleeve, reimagining Benvolio as a jovial swordswoman and Friar Lawrence as a piercing-strewn martial arts aficionado. But things between Romeo and Juliet are mostly like Romeo’s kisses – “by the book” – with the addition of two dancers, Kezia Coulson and Ryan Upton, who embody the feelings of the enamoured couple. Given the play’s emotional extremes, and the open-air setting’s distractions, Coulson and Upton’s elegant moves amplify the performances of Coleman and Cooper and broadcast the emotional tenor of each scene. It works perfectly.
Open-air productions are always at the mercy of the weather, but it’s worth braving the chance of rain to see this charming production, which hits more notes than it misses. A promenading adventure, it’s imaginative and engaging, and there’s even a music-and-firework finale that makes dramatic use of the park’s panoramic vista. Just remember to bring a raincoat!
Runs until 12th August 2018 | Image: Ian Howarth