FringeReview UK 2023
Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy blaze across this play like meteors inexorably entering the earth’s orbit, seemingly doomed to break up or worse. And did I say it showers screamingly funny one-liners too?
Directed by Rachel O’Riordan, Set and Costume Design by Hayley Grindle, Lighting Design Jack Knowles, Sound Design Gregory Clarke, Casting Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, Intimacy Director Imogen Knight, Dialect Coach Patricia Logue, Company Voice Work Cathleen McCarron, Staff Director Kwame Owusu.
Till April 1st then opening at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff April 12th
Gary Owen’s Romeo and Julie opening at the National Theatre, Dorfman (before transfer to the Sherman), marks a shift from some of his plays: intergenerational trauma marking Violence and Son, and Killology. But their backwash of deprivation, stunted choices, here takes on a character of its own.
Long-time writer-director collaborators, Owen and Rachel O’Riordan only recently revived Owen’s monologue Iphigenia in Splott at the Lyric, and earlier won an Olivier for Killology. We’re in Splott again, the de-industrialised part-waste-land deep in Cardiff but somehow nearer Mars.
18-year-old lovers Romeo (Callum Scott Howells) and Julie (Rosie Sheehy) blaze across this like meteors inexorably entering the earth’s orbit, seemingly doomed to break up or worse. And did I say it showers screamingly funny one-liners too?
And defying stars? Riffing on Shakespeare these are literally set above as glinting mobile squiggles and hieroglyphs in Hayley Grindle’s set (also recently at the Dorfman for the Sherman’s Boy With Two Hearts): the imagination of one character’s bid to reach for them through a career in theoretical physics. Star-gazing featured in Killology too.
The sparse world below – tables, chair, and upstage chairs where cast sit when not acting – even turns into a bleak, brickish beach with Jack Knowles’ characteristically chilly lighting.
Scott Howells’ Romeo determinedly solo-parents his daughter, against the advice of alcoholic mother Barb (Catrin Aaron), tough-tender-tough, not above taking money for baby-sitting at one point, then blowing out in a huff: but never over-played, a fine study of a character who fades in Act 2. Much of the early part of the play explores gritty details of nappy-changing, Barb’s nagging offer of foster-parenting doggedly refused; it’s Romeo’s (or Romy’s) core achievement: unemployed, not literate, but quick to learn. Howells walks a fine line between aphasic awkwardness and shafts of devastating sense.
It’s his laconic hang-dog wit that attracts Sheehy’s Julie, using a community project as excuse to get up close. Sheehy’s tremendous as the brilliant A-star student bound for Cambridge University with luck: but not privileged – there’s a telling scene when she recounts a posh girl talking to her at an interview later on.
Her parents Kath (Anita Reynolds) and Col (Paul Brennen) have in the obligatory way sacrificed everything – including Col’s health: the last thing they want is local entanglement. If there’s echoes here of The Corn is Green, revived at the NT only last year, it’s determinedly an agency rooted in working-class aspiration. Underlining this, Julie tells Romeo it wasn’t the hopeless physics teacher who inspired her to explore ‘Relativistic Momentum’: she inspired herself.
What makes this play sing is the soaring chemistry between Sheehy and Howells, choreographed as (too) brief exquisite rapture by intimacy director Imogen Knight, but everywhere apparent in awkward first kisses, hesitation waltzes of second-guessing desire. Inevitably Barry further west, and shades of Gavin and Stacey are echoed but this is very different: Julie in particular is all fire and decision: confronting Romeo, her parents, even Babs, in shape-shifting ways. Sheehy beautifully infuses Julie’s quicksilver choices, bravery, even her overreach always cleverly rationalised before Howells’ Romeo, infinitely gently, picks some of it apart.
Whilst Brennen’s Col has far less chance to develop – Brennen invests an agonised series of red lines he agonisingly breaks as Julie’s choices overwhelm him – Reynolds’ Kath is given a searing monologue about dedicated carework and exploitation that finally grounds her sketched-in character (neatly telling scene with her and Aaron’s Babs earlier too). It’s both pivotal to the play but a stand-alone reveal.
Romeo and Julie won’t impact as for instance Killology did, for good reason. Owen has bravely defied not only Shakespeare’s stars but his own and, showing at several points how the narrative could become bleak, at one point violent, even bleakly tragic, refuses the easy pull of desolation. Instead over an unhurried two-hours-fifteen span, he shows how intelligent, warm people might just navigate the structural forces ranged quite deliberately against them: especially in education. Indeed the last lines of the play are a heart-warming exhortation. It’s gentle, bittersweet, occasionally hilarious; striking a redemptive note in Owen’s work.