Review: Juliet & Romeo at the Chelsea Theatre

Romeo and Juliet is an age old tale that has seen infinite adaptations for the stage and screen.

The format of the romantic tragedy has been tinkered with ad nauseum, and it is hard to see where it could be taken next.

Enter Intermission Youth Theatre.

Their latest production, Juliet & Romeo, is an urban, contemporary telling of one of the world’s best known plays, full of humour, raw emotion and authenticity.

Juliet’s lines are transposed with Romeo’s, hence the plays back to front name, and the heavily distilled script fuses the original Shakespearian language with modern slang.

At times, the chorus chant the Bard of Avon’s words in rhythmic unison, as if reciting poetry. After all, his plays were written in blank verse or iambic pentameter.

Those lines which have been changed for a 2021 audience are delivered with a conviction and immediacy indicative of tough inner city life.

The waring families of the 16th century text have been replaced by drug dealing gangs who come to blows at a rave as opposed to a masked ball.

Black Lives Matter, knife and gun crime, and the misuse of police stop and search powers are themes which run throughout the show.

A policeman attending to a stab victim is heard to scream “This has to stop”, as if declaring a broader anti violence message on behalf of the writers.

INTERMISSION YOUTH THEATRE: A violent scene from their Shakespeare adaptation. Image credit: Richard Jinman

Indeed this gritty adaptation doesn’t shy away from violence.

Meticulously choreographed fights and the use of blood capsules amp up the realism, encouraging you to suspend your disbelief.

Intermission takes young people from difficult backgrounds and teaches them about theatre.

It has some powerful supporters like Mark Rylance and Whoopi Goldberg, who have held classes with the company.

Its influence is apparent in the calibre and confidence of its players.

Tyrese Taylor stood out as Rory, the comical tattoo shop worker who doesn’t want to get in the middle of the Montague-Capulet feud, but nevertheless lands himself in trouble.

Mercutio, played by Niara Rowe, is brash and streetwise. She has an air of laid back detachment which makes the character appealing.

All of the characters have their counterparts in Shakespeare’s original.

Intermission also draws parallels between Covid and the bubonic plague – a familiar lateral flow test scene was played for laughs.

The audience were enthused and engaged. Their audible gasps and laughter betrayed the fact that they were fully invested in the story.

The set was minimal – just a few boxes scattered around to create different levels, and they made good use of space, with actors appearing in the aisles of the small studio theatre.

In a new take on the famous balcony scene, Romeo spoke to his beloved from the window of his council flat.

Hip-hop and RnB played during scene changes, further cementing the narrative in the present day.

Much like the film Kidulthood, which is also based on London gang culture, the tension and bloodshed would have been less palatable if it wasn’t constantly undercut by humour.

Juliet & Romeo’s social message is driven home in a fresh twist on the play’s dramatic climax.

Juliet & Romeo is on at the Chelsea Theatre until 4 December. You can buy tickets here.

Image credit: Richard Jinman

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