Romeo & Juliet / Twelfth Night Review

Greenwich Theatre 18 – 22 April, UK tour to May.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Merely Theatre’s Spring tour is coming to an end, but if you’re anywhere near the remaining venues, grab your tickets now. You’re in for a treat.

Merely Theatre are a genderblind rep company full of energy and passion. 10 actors work in male/female pairs to rehearse each part, and 1 actor from each pair takes part in each performance. A cast of 5 results in a lot of multi-roling and amalgamation of roles, and it’s mind-boggling how comfortable these actors are with the text. The energy on stage is palpable. The joy of performing blasts off the stage, and the audience are encouraged to interact, adding to the contagious atmosphere of creativity. This is the closest I’ve seen in an indoor theatre to the inclusiveness of being a groundling at the Globe.

I saw both productions in a day, with the same cast in each, and left the theatre each time with an idiotic grin on my face. Twelfth Night’s gender bending was turned on its head, with an all-female cast apart from Olivia (Luke Barton), which made her self-imposed isolation more moving. The glorious buffoonery of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek was the highlight of the production, with Hannah Ellis and Luke Barton’s physical comedy keeping the audience in stitches. Ffion Jones’ reveal of Malvolio’s yellow stockings is worth the ticket price alone. The simple staging, with only black and white curtains as a backdrop and a bench carried on for a couple of scenes, kept the focus on the actors and their lines. The constant exits and entrances through the curtains for a quick change had the feel of a bedroom farce, and worked brilliantly in this fast, funny and slick production.

I’ve never been that fond of Juliet, and usually lose interest once Mercutio dies, but Merely Theatre’s stripped back Romeo & Juliet had me gripped from start to finish. This is a Juliet who acts her age, full of teenage certainty, and Emmy Rose’s performance was a joy to watch. The chemistry between the doomed lovers was believable and heart-breaking. There was still time for lots of business with the audience before the tragic ending, and Tamar Astor as Nurse squeezed every ounce of comedy from her role. I couldn’t figure out why the character felt so familiar until my friend pointed out that, in her tabard, she was the spitting image of Miranda Hart in Not Going Out – and just as funny. The death scene was particularly sensitive, again portrayed simply on an empty stage, drawing gasps from the younger members of the audience. This is a moving and inspired production, fizzing with energy and passion.

I can’t wait for Merely Theatre’s next productions and tours (maybe give us Welsh a treat too next time? This would work brilliantly at The Sherman). This is an exciting company who are obviously loving their work and doing a magnificent job spreading the love of Shakespeare around the country.

5 May: Uppingham Theatre

10 May: The Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead

22 – 23 May: Lowther Pavilion, Lytham St Anne’s

24 – 25 May: Theatre Royal Wakefield

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