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Romeo and Juliet review at Ambassadors Theatre, London – ‘stylish but insubstantial’

Shiv Jalota and Kwami Odoom in Romeo and Juliet at the Ambassadors Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Murray

At a time when many drama schools are increasing their fees, the National Youth Theatre’s Rep Company is more important than ever. The initiative, which offers young actors nine months’ free training and a coveted West End run, has laudable aims – and a lot to live up to.

Kate Hewitt’s 1950s-set Romeo and Juliet is unfortunately not the best showcase for these committed young actors. Intent on injecting fresh energy into the play, Hewitt is guilty of rushing through the most familiar beats. The lovers’ first meeting, Mercutio’s stabbing – even the tragedy’s conclusion – all pass in a breathless blur. Other moments are drowned out by the overbearing sound design, which relies more on punishing bursts of fuzzy electronic noise than the rockabilly swing the setting suggests. Too often, performers are made to choose between shouting and inaudibility.

James Mace’s brooding and sullen Romeo seems subdued beside a bright-eyed, quick-witted Shalisha James-Davis’ Juliet. Though they show good chemistry, their passion never combusts. While the cast is strong overall, a general lack of confidence in the language shackles their performances.

Abridged by Owen Horsley, the text features smart intercutting, with parallel scenes lending urgency to the chaotic aftermath of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s time in exile. Swiftly-changing tableaux starkly sketch out instants of passion or grief.

Ultimately though, all of the production’s energy is not enough to lift the inconsistent production, or excuse the sometimes leaden recitation of Shakespeare’s poetry.

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Stylish but insubstantial production of Shakespeare’s tragedy that’s lacking passion