Coming out of the lockdown, Romeo and Juliet has been a popular and safe choice for many theatres. It guarantees the audiences turn up and can provide a needed financial fillip to an industry that has struggled more than most over the last couple of years.
Intermission Youth Theatre’s Juliet and Romeo is not safe. Not in the traditional theatre sense anyway. Written and directed by Darren Raymond, the story of warring families has been transported to London from Verona, the very real postcode wars the reason for tension. Raymond has rewritten the play, blending Shakespeare’s language with the contemporary language of the inner city and reversing the roles: it is Juliet that seeks to woo Romeo. His script shines through, refreshing the play in a way that many productions reach for without grasping for it. At one point a character says ‘if it ain’t the feds it’s the ops’ and it is a succinct summation of how the young characters view the world they live in. Raymond also uses a chorus to handle the exposition heavy parts of the play and to emphasise the depth of emotions that the characters feel, a simple innovation that really works.
The script is absolutely matched by a number of truly stand out performances. It is easy to forget that the majority of the characters in the source material are teenagers and it is amazing the difference that having young people play the key roles has. Ophelia J Wisdom and Chadrack Mbuini have real chemistry as the titular characters. Wisdom’s Juliet has a beautiful character arc and she imbues the character with a softness and an edge that speaks to her understanding of the complexities of the character. Mbuini’s Romeo is another superlative performance. Romeo is one of the more challenging characters to make interesting on the stage, requiring a balance of teenage insouciance and earnestness to avoid him seeming insipid. Mbuini’s is a nuanced performance, full of teenage awkwardness and burgeoning confidence.
Megan Samuel shines as Capo, Romeo’s older sister, the matriarch of the family and a feared member of the community. Her menace is understated throughout and meshes well with Elijah Maximus’s combustible Tybalt. Watching the multitude of emotions on Maximus’s face when forced to give obeisance to Samuel’s Capo was chillingly good.
The highlight of the show, and perhaps the year, was Niara Rowe’s Mercutio. It is rare that you see a performer and know that you are watching a future star from the first moment they appear but Rowe fits the description. She has a wonderful ability to claim the space around her without ever ceding it. Her clash with Tybalt has the feel of two titans trading verbal sledgehammers. The audience believes every word she says and her impact lasts well beyond her untimely end.
Anybody that works in theatre has been aware of the pearl-clutching panic that it is currently in. There are questions around sustainability and accessibility. Whilst these conversations go on, there are practitioners like Raymond and companies like Intermission Youth that are making engaging and accessible theatre. The audience trended young and were enthusiastic in their cheering (on that, the ovation for Tyrese Taylor’s Laurence is perhaps the loudest and most sustained that character has ever received. Another powerhouse performance). It was a sell out and the audience left talking about coming back to watch more. Intermission Youth says that its aim is to “transform disadvantaged young people living in deprivation and experiencing high levels of anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, dependency and criminality.”
Whilst this is admirable, it can occlude the absolutely undeniable fact that they are housing some of the best creatives in the country. This show isn’t good because it works with disadvantaged young people. It is great because it gives those same young people a chance to be great and they have taken it.
Juliet and Romeo is on at Chelsea Theatre until 4th December 2021. More info and tickets here.