Paul T Davies reviews Romeo and Julie now playing at the National Theatre, London.
Romeo and Julie.
23 February 2023
This joint production with the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, joins Sheffield’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge on the National stages in making a truer representation of that title National. They both have working-class concerns at the heart of their shows, and both go beyond their locality to tell universal stories of class bias, educational disadvantages, and love. Gary Owen’s magnificent new play centres on a specific area of Cardiff, Splott, often derived by the surrounding city, but a strong community exists there. Owens doesn’t just know Splott like the back of his hands, he knows the blood that pumps through it. Romeo is an eighteen-year-old single dad, determined to bring up his baby daughter and, in a gorgeous reversal of expectations, love shines out of him for that baby girl, no toxic masculinity here. His mother is “a massive alcoholic”, and when Julie first meets him in a café, she thinks he is a homeless person. She is on her way to Cambridge University, her ambition to be an astrophysicist sparked in her when she was twelve. They only live a couple of streets apart, but worlds away in class and expectations.
The challenges these star-crossed lovers face is entirely class structured, along with parental expectations and ambitions, and an educational divide that has already rendered them firmly into the social pecking order. The cast are outstanding. As Romeo, Callum Scott Howells twists his body along with the elongated vowels and twangs of a very specific Welsh accent, heart-breaking in his gentleness and need for a better future, devoted to his daughter and then to Julie. Rose Sheehy is whip smart as Julie, determined to succeed, lacking a sense of reality, they both perfectly hit the humour of the play as well as the sadness. By the time, in the first half, they get to Netflix and chill and coconut oil, you’re totally in love with both. As Barb, Catrin Aaron pitches her judgey alcoholism perfectly, never once sliding into caricature, in fact some of her opinions are very wise. In the first Act, Julie’s parents feel on the periphery, but come into their own in the second half, especially when Kath reveals her job, and we have a wonderful comment on care. Even when Paul Brennen, as Julie’s Dad, confronts Romeo, he ends up squeezing his shoulder. This is not an angry play, and more powerful for that, passion runs through it, and it is deeply moving.
Rachel O’Riordan, time and time again shows what an astute director she is, the play breathes beautifully. Hayley Grindle’s neon design hangs over the stage, that of doodles and unresolved problems. My only complaint is that the music in the scene changes often jars against the sensitivity of the scenes, pushing me out of my rapture for this superb script. But it is, in my opinion, the best working class romance since Beautiful Thing. Cardiff is in for a treat.