Reviewed by John Waterhouse on 16th October 2019
Romeo and Juliet apart from being one of the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays is also surely one of the most frequently adapted, from Bernstein’s West Side Story, set in 50s New York gang culture to the extraordinary computer-animation Gnomio and Juliet, set in the world of gnomes. Perhaps, this is because the concept of star-crossed lovers continues to resonate to all times and social environments so why not re-set it in present-day Stockport and title it ‘Romeo + Juliet’?
There is a cliché that Shakespeare does not work well with Amateur theatres, even good ones, and unfortunately, there is often some truth to this, particularly with the more challenging works by the Bard (which perhaps explains why Twelfth Night is often the favoured choice for amateur societies, with little pathos and a manageable cast). Remember that in the hit comedy film ‘Hot Fuzz’, the murder of two lovers who had played Romeo and Juliet in an amateur production was explained simply by the fact ‘they had murdered Shakespeare’! So, in deciding to produce this play, the Garrick society was accepting a fairly big challenge!
Stockport Garrick certainly made no attempt to make it easy for themselves, employing a cast of over twenty and using modern dress whilst keeping to the authentic Shakespearian text. The backdrop of multi-level rostra on metal supports was at first glance very simple but actually well thought out, with generous space for crowd scenes downstage and the various levels used to good effect. The use of strip-neon lighting certainly set the scene for the youth-culture club scenes and a wide variety of well-chosen music plus effectively lighting techniques helped convey the many moods and scenes in this complex play.
So, with a basic but functional set, (virtually) no props and no period costumes, it was all down to the actors to deliver and frankly, everyone delivered admirably. This production was, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, a triumph. The quality of acting really did make you care about the characters and even the most emotional and delicate scenes were handled with feeling and authentic emotions. Anyone perhaps used elsewhere to hearing occasional prompts in the likes of an Ayckbourne or a Godber would be pleasantly surprised on hearing all the sixteenth century dialogue delivered clearly and fluidly and this was a production which engaged the audience throughout.
It can have been no easy task to assemble a cast with an age range from teens to sixties where everyone looked right for their character and credit must be given to Director Martin Pritchard for ensuring that full use was made of the large stage area. Of course it was heavily stylised but the positioning of the various groups of actors looked right. The only thing which did not seem to work was a sort stage version of split screen action where you saw face-on a combatant making a forward stabbing motion next to his opponent face-on receiving the wound; this was just a bit of stylisation too far.
Space does not allow a detailed commentary on this large cast but special credit must be given to Joe Mihranian as Romeo and Harriet Maxwell as Juliet. In unskilled hands, their love and death scenes could have seemed farcical (as was the case in Hot Fuzz!) but they simply gelled and were not just convincing as a couple but conveyed all the right highs and angsts of these challenging roles. And finally, Joseph Jacobs deserves a special mention, giving a charming portrayal of Friar Lawrence (in the guise of a Social Worker).
If you want to see all the clichés of amateur actors and Shakespeare turned on their heads, go and see Stockport Garrick’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; you may be very surprised indeed!