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Romeo and Julie at the National Theatre review: an enthralling love story that asks big questions

Rosie Sheehy and Callum Scott Howells in Romeo and Julie ( Marc Brenner)
Rosie Sheehy and Callum Scott Howells in Romeo and Julie ( Marc Brenner)

In Gary Owen’s sparky, working-class Welsh riff on Shakespeare’s play, the lovers are challenged by the realities of early parenting, rather than by warring parents.

Here, Romeo is an 18-year-old, unemployed single dad, learning on the job how to raise his baby daughter Niamh, with little help from his alcoholic mum Barb. “You’re a child yourself,” Barb sneers in a sober moment, insisting the girl is put up for adoption.

Julie is perhaps one rung further up Cardiff’s social ladder, with a loving dad and stepmum. She’s massively bright, and destined to study Physics at Cambridge. Until, that is, she and Romeo are hijacked and derailed by biology. They fall for each other, and for the idea of a nuclear family.

Owen’s tart wit is well served by Rachel O’Riordan’s brisk and economical production. And by the zesty performances of Rosie Sheehy and It’s a Sin star Callum Scott Howells, who have great chemistry in the lead roles. The play arrives at a politically interesting time, too, when the habitual demonisation of teenage pregnancy has been superseded by angst about the declining birthrate. When is the right time to be a parent? Wisely, Owen lays out all the issues without attempting a definitive answer.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

This co-production with Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre reunites Owen and O’Riordan with their regular collaborator there, designer Hayley Grindle. Her set – broad steps strewn with school chairs and lit by suspended neon shapes – echoes that of the trio’s last show in London, the similarly defiant underclass shout Iphigenia in Splott.

There’s little to detract from the acting, although the density and particularity of the regional accents – this is not just a Cardiff voice, but a Splott/Tremorfa voice - may sound strange to some English ears.

Sheehy is delightful, a smart, sharp, scathing dynamo. “You’re a funny girl: lots of people don’t like that,” observes Barb (Catrin Aaron), who’s very dry for an alcoholic. Howells has a low-key Paul Mescal vibe, offset by an exaggerated slouch and De Niro-ish head-wags and grimaces: his performance is strange and mannered but intensely watchable.

The initial erotic spark between the two young leads is powerful, their subsequent commitment sketchy but credible. The older characters are a mix of sentiment and brutality. Having struggled to raise and love their own kids they bridle at supporting the next generation, emotionally or financially.

Aaron gives a masterclass in drunk acting. Paul Brennen and Anita Reynolds are very good as Julie’s steelworker dad and carer stepmum. Owen uses these characters as mouthpieces for political points, albeit eloquent ones.

Is there an element of poverty porn in watching struggling Welsh people from the comfy confines of the National? Is it slightly icky to hear a male writer explore pivotal female decisions? Arguably, yes. But this remains an enthralling love story that links the big questions of physics, biology and chemistry to a very basic issue: what happens when human life and adulthood arrive too soon.

National Theatre, to April 1, nationaltheatre.org.uk