As I mentioned in my catch-up post a few days ago, I recently won a competition being run by Manchester’s newest theatre company, HOME. The resulting review was published in a slightly shortened form on their website, which you can read here and hopefully will soon also be published on Northern Soul (I’ll post the link once it’s published). All terribly exciting, but for now, here is my review of Romeo & Juliet at Victoria Baths à la HOME: the extended version…
Phwoar! Before we even start with this review, can I just take a moment to applaud the casting crew over at HOME for bringing us the sensational piece of eye-candy that is Alex Felton? He may be 35, but, my God is he a heartthrob and a half. Ok, slightly shallow moment of weakness over – let’s talk about the play.
Romeo & Juliet is truly ‘immersive’ in every sense of the word. But HOME’s first original offering was never going to shy away from the spotlight. With the somewhat surprising choice of location of Victoria Baths, this production was bound to stand out. The script may have been reshaped and revived many a time over the years, but make no mistake, this show is breaking the mould. Do the monumental roles weigh heavily on the shoulders of leads Alex Felton and Sara Vickers? Not at all – in fact, Vickers says realising the vision of german Director Walter Meierjohann was “liberating.” Her biggest challenge? “Learning to let go.” With such an extraordinary setting, it’s not just the cast, but the audience who are thrown in at the deep end – excuse the pun. This production feels like someone grabbing you by the shoulders, removing the rose-tinted glasses of productions past and forcing you to see ‘Romeo & Juliet’ through a fresh pair of eyes: HOME’s eyes. Letting go is not an option, but a necessity.
Felton remembers the first few shows as an evolution, a time when neither he nor the spectators were sure of this bold new direction – a tentative testing of the waters, if you will. He laughs: “it took a while to realise ‘this is ok.’” And yet the result of that evolution is such certainty in the creative vision of HOME and the cast that you can’t help but be consumed by the action.
From the offset, the hustle and bustle of the audience creates an atmosphere of anticipation, as those lucky enough to have purple promenade wristbands are directed to their positions. Young girls ponder whether their heads would have bobbed above the water in years gone by, whilst others try to suss out the show – was that a door that just slammed? Are those an actor’s shoes I see?
Despite being steeped in the history of the Baths, Ti Green’s set design has an air of modernity about it. The juxtaposition of the Punch & Judy-esque changing rooms with a reflective silver stage created an almost inexplicable sense of, well, kitsch. The choreography may have suggested otherwise, but there was no conflict when it came to the set – Green has pulled off a seamless transition from 16th century Verona to post-Communist Eastern Europe.
Where the Capulets lend themselves well to an almost Mafia-like unit, Mercutio seems to have raided the wardrobe of Keith Lemon, with fantastically frivolous consequences. Little black Calvins lend Romeo an edge, and who could help but love the debauched disco that evolved from the masquerade ball? Full of charm and dynamics, even the lighting of a cigarette is transformed into music. Sat, feet dangling into the pool, there are moments when you feel so involved that one small step could land you at the mercy of Tybalt’s knife, or plunge you into the depths of confession with the friar. What Home have created is a complex web of tragedy embraced by what Felton sees as the “happy accidents” of Meierjohann’s directorial genius. How he stumbled across the idea to mess with one of Shakespeare’s most memorable love scenes – that which has inspired countless spoofs (and who could forget the Taylor Swift song?) – is unknown. Would Shakespeare have been insulted by a twerking Mercutio and Romeo breaking into a verse of Crazy In Love? Possibly. But does it work? Definitely.
Vickers puts in an exceptional performance as Juliet, but if she could go back in time and ask the Bard himself how he managed to capture the essence of a thirteen year old girl so brilliantly, she would. As she put it, “I was a 13 year-old girl, you weren’t. How did you get it so bang on?” Similarly, Felton gives Romeo a forlorn hipster-vibe that somehow works against the intensity of the story. And together they capture something which even Vickers recognises “cannot be played or forced.” They capture the idea of a ‘big love.’ So if it can’t be played or forced, how do you go about creating that? An infectious giggle is shared. “I showed Alex this quote about soul mates that said ‘I feel like i’ve known you my whole life and how can it be that we’ve only just met but you feel so familiar to me?’ I think that’s what we tried to get across.”
However, it’s not just the star-crossed lovers that shine here. Rachel Atkins does a fabulous turn as the nurse; her character possesses that distinctly old European comfort that reminds me so much of my Grandmother, and Griffin Stevens provides some comic relief as Peter – a perfect example of the Shakespearean fool. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few things to be ironed out – the seated audience had to crane their necks to see from above and whilst the concept of three separate locations was exciting, it did mean moving sometimes in the middle of a scene. However, these things are trivial and pale in comparison to the feat that Home have managed. The last scene left me lost for words – and, trust me, that doesn’t happen often. But, I suppose that’s a good thing; if I had the words to do it justice in gushing, it really would ruin the surprise. At the end of the day, this is a production my dad would hate (purely because he so often falls asleep in the theatre and in this he most definitely could not), but in theatre terms, that is one huge compliment.