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Romeo and Julie a new play by Gary Owen – Dorfman Theatre

You don’t need to know a thing about that other play that sounds oh-so-similar to Romeo and Julie to get your head around it. At the same time, the parallels are there, for those who insist on looking for them – Kath (Anita Reynolds) instructs her stepdaughter Julie (Rosie Sheehy) not to have anything to do with Romeo (Callum Scott Howells). It’s not two families at war with one another – you’d even struggle to identify metaphorical stabbings in the back, such is the plain-speaking the characters more often than not adopt. Still, there’s a knowing feeling that the lovers are indeed ‘star-crossed’, and while the conclusion is somewhat predictable, the play has much to say about life in twenty-first century Wales, and there are humorous flirtations between teenagers to enjoy, or indeed endure.

Paul Brennen (Col) and Callum Scott Howells (Romeo) in Romeo and Julie at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.
Paul Brennen (Col) and Callum Scott Howells (Romeo) in Romeo and Julie at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.

Romeo still lives at home with his mother Barb (Catrin Aaron), and he’s a single father on account of his previous relationship coming to an end. He’s left literally holding the baby, with Barb adopting a strategy of benign neglect in an attempt to persuade Romeo that he can’t, as a teenager with limited means, care for the baby unassisted. When the inevitable begging for help comes along, he’s forced to admit his mother has a point. Enter Julie, who offers to babysit – something to do with her school wanting all of its pupils to do something proactive that will benefit someone in the local community (that is, not just donate to a charity, wonderful as that is).

From here, the story steadily but surely transforms into a commentary on the education system in Britain and its various inequalities. Completing the set of on-stage characters is Col (Paul Brennan), Julie’s father, somewhat stereotypical and in effectively trying to live out his own ambitions through his daughter, who is of course liable to change her mind as to what she wants to achieve, still having the rest of her life in front of her. When Julie wants to deviate from an intention expressed at the age of twelve (she is now eighteen), Col throws her out of the family home. Or, to put it another way, Julie is banished. No prizes for guessing, with a play with this title, whom she ends up staying with.

The production flows well, with a fairly minimalist set. The dialogue is relied upon to establish time and place, which is probably the most Shakespearean thing about this show (it is not an adaptation, it is an entirely new play). It’s late because someone says it’s late; Barb’s home is cramped, despite the audience looking at a stage in a National Theatre auditorium with ample room, because someone says it’s cramped. Nobody leaves the stage entirely when not in a scene, retreating to the back or the side of the stage, which sometimes proved distracting, but other times there was a purpose, such as Romeo’s baby being looked after while the lovers are deep in conversation.

It’s very much a play of our times, with some intriguing perspectives on whether anyone can ‘have it all’ – Julie’s ambitions expand with the increased challenges of being a young father’s girlfriend. It was also an eyeopener, at least for me, on a wide range of matters, from the cost of nappies and wipes to the reasons why parents and carers send their offspring to schools that teach in Welsh (the show is set in Splott, Cardiff) despite not being conversant in Welsh themselves. Despite the difficult circumstances faced by the play’s characters, it is often amusing as much as it is perceptive.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A modern love story inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo is a single dad hanging on tight. Julie is fighting to follow her dream of studying at Cambridge.

Two Welsh teens raised a few streets apart – but from entirely different worlds – crash into first love and are knocked off their feet. But at the crossroads to the rest of their lives, Julie’s family fears the worst in a world of unequal opportunity.

Following their critically acclaimed productions Iphigenia in Splott and Killology, director Rachel O’Riordan reunites with Gary Owen to deliver his new play.

Catrin Aaron – Barb
Paul Brennen – Col
Anita Reynolds – Kath
Callum Scott Howells – Romeo
Rosie Sheehy – Julie

Production Team
Gary Owen – Writer
Rachel O’Riordan – Director
Hayley Grindle – Set and Costume Designer
Jack Knowles – Lighting Designer
Gregory Clarke – Sound Designer
Patricia Logue – Dialect Coach
Bryony Jarvis-Taylor – Casting
Imogen Knight – Intimacy Coordinator
Kwame Owusu – Staff Director

Booking until 1st April 2023

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