Romeo and Juliet, Southwark Playhouse, review: 80s-set Shakespeare is an unexpected nostalgia trip

·3-min read
Samuel Tracy as Romeo and Laura Lake Adebisi as Juliet - Tom Chaplin Photography
Samuel Tracy as Romeo and Laura Lake Adebisi as Juliet - Tom Chaplin Photography

There’s a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s knocking around, as well as a good bit of looking back in anguish. The signs are everywhere, from The Weeknd’s chart-topping brand of throwback synth-pop to Steve McQueen’s lauded documentary series Uprising, focusing in detail on race relations in 1981.

Now that incendiary year forms the backdrop for a rough-and-ready but also engrossingly atmospheric staging of Romeo and Juliet that locates the action in ‘fair Brixton’ not Verona. It splices Shakespeare’s much-hacked text with salty street chatter and blasts of fondly remembered Two-Tone and ska classics.

Running to just 100 minutes – it’s designed for schools, but open to all comers - Nicky Allpress’s multi-racial production could be hideously gimmicky, but it has a refreshing cheek and an energetic, cheery coherence.

The early Thatcher period was, of course, a high water-mark for youthful aimlessness, as unemployment rose and gangs roved. The audience at the Southwark Playhouse enters a pub environment where not much is occurring besides a game of darts. A bored bobby patrols nearby as rivals from the ‘Montague estate’ and ‘Capulet Tower’ bicker and brawl. The exasperated landlord then does a local TV interview, spouting about fighting poverty, racism and fascism, but those sentiments are tellingly undercut by the combative sound of The Clash’s London Calling.

Although she utilises a montage of violent imagery from the Brixton riots, Allpress doesn’t define the conflict as one of racial antagonism, recognising the era as a crucible of tension, contradiction and also fruitful cultural fusion. That’s brought out at the Capulet ‘ball’, which sees a melee of co-ordinated, exuberant dance moves to Madness’s One Step Beyond, complete with live sax accompaniment, then the lovers swooning to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight.

Purists may squeal in horror at Samuel Tracy’s Romeo - a smiley and rather sweet-natured south Londoner - being told to “f***ing leg it” after stabbing Tybalt (who has slain Mercutio with a dart!) and getting exiled to Basingstoke. And anyone might well scratch their head at a social context which has Laura Lake Adebisi’s smart, uncowed Juliet getting ‘married off’ to Paris – playfully presented by Joey Ellis as a hopeless (white) New Romantic pretty-boy.

Still, if at an abstract level it doesn’t always stack up, the pervasive mood of hormonal volatility works its own persuasive charm, honouring the tilting between incidental comedy and accidental tragedy.

The lovers’ scenes are lent due sincerity, but the biggest shivers as they lie dead may be stirred by the eerie sound of The Specials’ Ghost Town. Those of a certain age will go misty-eyed at lost youth and a vanished world of pork-pie hats, tight jeans and days when DMs meant clumpy footwear not vapid social media messages.

Until Feb 5. Tickets: 020 7407 0234; southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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