Thanks to the Sherman Theatre for providing us with review tickets to Romeo and Julie for the purpose of this review
Unemployed, exhausted teenage single dad Romeo meets A-level student Julie, an aspiring astrophysicist on course for Cambridge University, at the Star Centre in Splott. Despite living around the corner from each other, they’ve never met before, her going to the Welsh school, and all that. They’re on completely different life paths, but there’s a definite attraction. They promise not to fall in love, but of course they do. And then they find themselves in a difficult situation with no easy answers. Love, family, academic and career potential, class, poverty… all play a part as the young couple face huge sacrifices, no matter what choice they make.
This is Romeo and Julie, a tale of intense teenage love, loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s classic tragic love story, and a joint production from Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre and The National Theatre, London.
It comes to Cardiff direct from six weeks at The National, where critics praised it as a “faultlessly performed tale of rage and hope” (The Stage), saying it “grips from the start” (whatsonstage), and is “witty, gritty yet generous” (The Times).
Last night saw its official press night in Cardiff, playing to a pretty much full auditorium who gave it an emphatic standing ovation.
It’s an incredible production, thought-provoking, emotional, humorous, gritty, well-written, with incisive timely social commentary, and strong performances all round.
Under the creative partnership of writer Gary Owen and director Rachel O’Riordan (who have received numerous awards and accolades from their previous works together, Iphigenia in Splott, Killology, and The Chery Orchard), Romeo and Julie swoops effortlessly from laugh out loud humour one minute to hard-hitting hold-your-breath tenseness the next. There’s utter silence in the auditorium as we become absorbed in this tale of love when everything’s against you, and I know I wasn’t the only one to cry at the end.
There’s such a realism to it all, perhaps in part due to Owen’s own life following a similar trajectory to Julie; from a working class background, ending up at Cambridge, and having lived in Splott for 10 years.
Unashamed in its Cardiff-ness, with thick Splott/Tremorfa accents all round, there’s references to the aforementioned Star Centre, Splott Beach, Bro Edern Welsh medium secondary school, The Tramshed, Cardiff University, even soft play at Penylan Community Centre which, says Romy (as he’s often called) is the best in town according to the under 5 gang. It’s an immensely powerful production even without the familiar locations (as seen in the London reviews) but it certainly adds an extra dimension for local audiences.
Pontypridd-born Callum Scott Howells (above) – best known as Colin in Channel 4’s It’s A Sin – is Romeo. Just 23 years old, Scott Howells is an exceptional talent; raw, vulnerable, loving, doing the best he can in the toughest of circumstances. He moves from cheeky flirtatious smile to crude banter to pure desperation in an instant, forgoing all the things regular teenagers do as he cares for his baby and his alcoholic mother. He’s a character that will stay with me for a long time; he deserves so much more.
Catrin Aaron (below right) puts in an equally powerful performance as Barb, Romeo’s alcoholic mother. She’s misguided, completely unsupportive of Romeo, doesn’t always have the best intentions, makes some shocking decisions, but loves her family in her own way. She’s a complex character with an unexpected dry sense of humour. I’d love to hear more from her; she’d be great in her own monologue-style performance charting her own difficult life.
Port Talbot born Rosie Sheehy (above left) plays Julie, the Splott girl with ambitions to discover some of the world’s most complex physics theories. Both blunt and warm, she doesn’t quite fit into the world she lives in now, but is slowly realising she might not fit into the world where she’s hopefully heading either. Her pain feels real as she is forced to make choices which will result in heartbreak whatever she does.
Paul Brennen as her dad Col and Anita Reynolds as stepmother Kath (Julie’s own mother died when she was a toddler) despair at times with their teenage daughter, resulting in a powerful showdown between dad and daughter. The conversations between Kath and Julie are touching and emotional, as Kath hopes for so much more for Julie than she herself had and Julie realises the sacrifices her parents have made for her.
The minimalistic black staging, with the cast always present even when not performing, is effectively bleak, while the choreographed scene changes add a little momentum in this powerful contemporary love story.
Unlike most of the productions I review here on Cardiff Mummy Says, this one is definitely NOT for a family audience. The Sherman’s website itself warns it “contains strong language and references to abortion, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and sex”. Parental guidance is essential; I would suggest 16 as a minimum.
Romeo and Julie is at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until 29 April. There are still tickets available but they are selling fast. See the Sherman Theatre website for more information.
Tickets are priced from £16-£27, with £2 off for concessions and half price for under 25s.
Accessible performances include: Thursday 20 and Thursday 27 April, 7.30pm, captioned; Monday 24 April, 6.30pm relaxed performance; Wednesday 26 April, 7.30pm, Audio Described, Thursday 27 April 7.30pm BSL interpreted.