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Review: Romeo and Juliet at The Royal Exchange Theatre is ‘an unmissable love letter to Manchester’

Shakespeare’s renowned tragicomedy gets a new lease of life breathed into it at the Royal Exchange Theatre this autumn – and it’s not a revival to miss. 

Romeo and Juliet has a stellar cast and creative team, with Nicholai la Barrie directing and Mark Melville as sound engineer.

There is a tasteful Mancunian twist; a ‘love letter to Manchester’, that runs throughout and features excellent props and effects. Nailing both aspects of comedy and tragedy, this production is worth your time, whether you are familiar with the material or not.

The illustrious tale of star-crossed lovers… a story that of Juliet and her Romeo. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the ultimate tragic love story, where Romeo of Montague and Juliet of Capulet fall in love despite the continuous conflict between their families.

There are big themes presented within, but none so large as the role of fate, (forgive the spoilers, but the play has been around since the 16th century!) famously implicated for its involvement in their tragic demise that could have been prevented oh so many times – but wasn’t.

This production of Romeo and Juliet has a primary cast of eleven, plus a small ensemble and each actor was brilliantly cast in their respective roles. Geoff Aymer plays the meddling but caring Friar Lawrence, who does his best to honour what he believes to be right but ultimately starts playing God.

Aymer is excellent at drawing the audience in, especially with his rendition of the prologue, and his comical exchanges with Romeo are well received by audiences.

This production of Romeo and Juliet adapts the material to place Lady Capulet as the head of the house, rather than Lord Capulet, who does not exist here. Playing the ferocious and mighty family matriarch is Kate Hampson who is brilliantly vivid and intense.

She brings to this character an element of compassion, a trait that doesn’t always exist within this character, which is refreshing, as well as the expected short bursts of bad temper.

Gemma Ryan portrays the true mother figure of Juliet, Nurse, who is an especially funny character and is not the fool people paint her to be.

Ryan wins favour as the Nurse, as she has such a chemistry that makes us truly believe she has real motherly instinct and the best of intentions for Juliet. Romeo’s sidekicks are Benvolio, played by the very talented Adam Fenton, with David Judge dynamically depicting Mercutio.

The entire cast is excellent, Ike Bennett (Prince/Gregory), Dominic Holmes (Sampson/Paris), Ashley O’Brien (Tybalt), and Daniel Poyser (Montague) all bring spirited performances and are equally very notable.

Conor Glean as Romeo is extraordinary! His talent, voice, and mannerisms bring this Romeo up to speed for modern audiences but it is done tastefully, he is respectful of the source material but presents his own interpretation of the character.

The trust of the directors and creative team is very well placed within Glean, as he perfectly depicts the short burst of burning passion with so much force and all his might that you cannot help but root for him.

Most, if not all the audience knows the narrative and how it ends, but Glean’s Romeo is so strong that you don’t want it to end that way – you want to see him succeed and reunite with Juliet. You truly think he might.

And what would this Romeo be without his Juliet? Shalisha James-Davis is outstanding.

This production of Romeo and Juliet ages up Juliet, making her ‘not yet seventeen’, which was a good choice to make. James-Davis embodies this Juliet as naïve yet certain of herself, headstrong, and above all else so passionate about Romeo that she would rather die than consider anything else.

Glean and James-Davis together make such a fantastic Romeo and Juliet, strengthening and heightening each other’s performances with authentic and tangible effects.

Set within Royal Exchange’s theatre in the round, Romeo and Juliet makes great use of the staging and effects available. Juliet’s balcony, in this production, is a large, singular cylinder apparatus which gets slowly revealed from the ceiling as it is eased down to centre stage.

It gets a spotlight shining through as it moves up and down, creating a kaleidoscope effect on the stage floor, and the apparatus nature of it allows Romeo to succinctly climb up and down it.

A further notable aspect of the set is Friar Lawrence’s hanging planters, which literally do hang from the stage ceiling to evidence the set of his garden and his love for plants and the substances he can draw from them.

We also see Mercutio and Benvolio making unique use of the multilevel facility of the dome, where they go upstairs to call out for Romeo.

Screens around the stage are turned on so audiences in the stalls can still watch what is going on, even though the action is occurring above them.

Moreover, Juliet’s funeral staging is phenomenal. In the centre of the stage floor, a rectangular piece of the stage rises, about the size of a ¾ bed, which we see used as both Romeo and Juliet’s marital bed and Juliet’s tomb in some twisted symbolism.

Here she is laid to rest in the centre, while the characters surround her in funeral black.

The accompanying effects are what really flesh out the scene, as the lighting imitates lightning strikes, the sound effects provide the thunder, and most magically, it begins to rain indoors.

Otherwise, the majority of the time the staging is very simple, with the round stage clear except for black boxes that characters use to either stand and proclaim things or sit, turned face to the audience, who are brought into the play.

This is done either by the cast aiming their monologue at someone, or directly asking them a question – such as ‘Where is Ashton Road?’. The nature of interaction takes an already immediate setting and makes it especially intimate.

Audiences can also get involved with the grand Capulet party festivities, with everyone being invited to stand up and dance or, if you are lucky enough to be front row, welcomed onto the stage to be a part of the party itself!

Overall, this play is a fantastic rendition of a century’s old tale. It is lively, energetic, and actually, although it is a woeful tragedy, the performances and talent on the stage is so incredible that you leave feeling joyful.

It is an honour to watch this cast, and this joy is an opportunity not to be missed. Romeo and Juliet is being performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 18th November, which gives you plenty of opportunity to catch this brilliant piece of theatre.

Tickets start at just £10, and can be purchased here.

The show runs for three hours, the first act lasts about an hour and a half and is followed by a twenty-minute interval.

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