Theatre review - Romeo & Juliet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Tessa Parr as Juliet and Dan Parr as Romeo. Photography by Anthony Robling

Tessa Parr as Juliet and Dan Parr as Romeo. Photography by Anthony Robling - Credit: Archant

Is Yorkshire ready to fall in love in with a modern reimagining of Romeo & Juliet? Jo Haywood doth think so.

When West Yorkshire Playhouse last staged Romeo & Juliet 22 years ago, Amy Leach was in the audience. She was just a girl at the time, enjoying a school trip to the theatre (and, we assume, the chance to escape, albeit briefly, from Lancashire).

That production, directed by Neil Bartlett, ignited a spark in her that has burned brightly ever since, leading to a career in theatre and, most recently, a new role as associate director at WYP. Which is very lovely for Amy, you might well be thinking, but doesn’t matter a whole lot of hoohah to me.

But, if you’re a theatregoer, is does matter. It matters a whole heap of hoohah. In fact, this seemingly inconsequential fact is something you should be very grateful for indeed because, without that trip two decades ago, we wouldn’t now be enjoying her breathtaking new version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of doomed teen love.

And when I say breathtaking, I mean it literally. There are scenes in Leach’s contemporary reinterpretation in which I didn’t dare draw breadth for fear of missing a telling look, a revealing gesture, a devastating vocal inflection or one of the myriad other incisive details she has introduced to build layers of emotion that reach dizzying heights before crashing earthward in that final shattering scene. Frankly, I’m amazed I didn’t pass out.

From the moment WYP’s Young People’s Company invade the stage as rival gang members, beating their chests across a modern concrete jungle while waving their smart phones like banners of allegiance, you know you’re in for an exciting ride.

Two teams of terrific teenage performers – Team Mantua and Team Verona – provide ensemble support on alternate nights and give an interesting narrative structure by taking it in turns to speak lines usually delivered by the neutral Prince.

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Their youth and vitality make the play feel fresh and relevant, and their unflagging energy help to propel the story forward through its three-hour staging.

The young leads, Dan Parr and Tessa Parr (of course they’re not related; that would be weird), are equally as vibrant in their roles, both utterly convincing as star-crossed lovers who burn with a dazzling brightness before being consumed by the black hole of their families’ mutual hatred.

Romeo is given a cheeky but beguiling swagger, while Juliet is joyously openhearted, with Parr 1 and Parr 2 each digging deep to find the humour, honesty and untrammelled emotion necessary to make their love feel heartbreakingly believable.

From their first meeting at the Capulet’s fancy dress party, both uncomfortable in their geeky gold costumes but immediately comfortable in each other’s company, to their final devastating death tableau, they feel so real you want to pull them off the stage, shove them in your car and drive them to Mantua yourself in a vain attempt to escape their fate.

But their fate has already been sealed by the deaths of Tibalt, the Capulet family’s right-hand man, played with cool clarity by Tachia Newall, and Mercutio, Romeo’s ‘bestie’, played with a pulsating energy by Elexi Walker (she virtually throbs). Casting a young ballsy woman in this pivotal role is a particularly smart move as it underlines the modernity of the interpretation and gives Lawrence Walker, who delivers Shakespeare’s lines with a beautiful natural rhythm, a hard surface to bounce off as the softer-hearted Benvolio, Romeo’s other BFF.

Although this is a play that revolves around the lives of young people, it’s not entirely populated by tortured teens. Among the older members of the cast (and by older, we’re not talking bus passes, they’re just not going to get carded in the pub anymore), Jack Lord is suitably menacing as Capulet, Juliet’s pugilistic, pugnacious father; former Emmerdale star Natalie Anderson brings an interesting new dimension to Lady Capulet, an outwardly strong woman whose steely carapace, we begin to suspect, has been forged primarily as protection against her bullying husband; and Susan Cookson, an actress who always delivers in her TV work, gives an outstanding performance as Juliet’s nurse, balancing humour and heart with a glint of northern grit.

And make no mistake about it, this is a distinctly northern take on Shakespeare. The accents vary – Yorkshire, Lancashire, Merseyside and the Midlands can all be heard amongst the battle cries of the rival crews – but this is an interpretation that reflects the northern soul of director Amy Leach.

She came to the West Yorkshire Playhouse 22 years ago and it changed her life. Now, she’s returning the favour with a truly exceptional production to inspire a new generation.

Romeo & Juliet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until March 25th