Reptember season made me a bit more optimistic than I would normally be about a play I've never liked: This year's rep opens with Romeo and Juliet. Two leading Verona families have been mortal enemies for generations, for reasons nobody seems to even remember. When the Capulets host a party, Romeo Montague's (Christopher York) friends convince him to crash, in the hope that he might get over his unrequited love for Rosaline. It works, but only because Romeo quickly falls for someone else instead - his enemy's only daughter, Juliet (Clare Latham.) And unlike Rosaline, she's actually noticed he's alive and feels the same way.
Valentine Smith's production opens promisingly, with the violence that begins the play transplanted to a drunken brawl in a night club. And the energetic fights (choreographed by Kevin McCurdy) remain one of the most impressive elements of the production throughout.
If, like me, you've been following The Faction for a few years, an interesting thing about this year's rep is how many new faces there are. Only two core ensemble members are present, Kate Sawyer as the Nurse and Christopher Hughes as Peter - and the latter's only been with the company for a year. It feels as if it's shaken things up a bit, with some of the original energy and inventiveness back in evidence. The central couple have good chemistry, but pleasingly avoid playing them as a grand romance: York in particular has a restless, petulant quality of childlike fixation; the production is keen to show how their default reaction to anything going wrong is to thrown their toys out of the pram.
There's one real problem with Valentine Smith's production, but it's a major one, and it's in the play itself. Romeo and Juliet is fine as poetry but as theatre it's massively overwritten, and for a director who's been so bold with so much of the production, she's curiously timid about making a single cut to the text. The prologue is truncated but after that no word seems to have been touched. Knowing in advance that the show went over the three-hour mark, it's frustrating to see hugely padded earlier scenes show up in their entirety, suspecting that - as indeed happens - the production will pay for it when the rather well-done climactic scenes are played to a tired and frustrated audience.
Much as I loved Rupert Goold's iconic RSC production I don't expect every Romeo and Juliet to copy it, but given the clubland setting we opened with, it seems silly of Valentine Smith not to follow his example of making the Apothecary (Natasha Rickman) a modern drug dealer. Instead, of course, we get the full description of the little shop and details of local holidays, just when the plot really needs to be speeding up. And I often talk about "kill your darlings" (the idea that, if something about a show isn't working, you should take out the thing you love the most and see if that fixes it) but there seems a perfect example here: There's a scene between Peter and some musicians that I've probably only seen make it onstage about once before. Here it's turned into him comforting the Nurse after Juliet's death, with the use of sock puppets - a nicely-done scene between Hughes and Sawyer but inappropriate in context, and one that once again halts the action just as it should be ramping up the most.
This reverence of the text is a real shame as there's so much that's great about the production. I suspect Valentine Smith might have seen A View From The Bridge, as there's a menacing underscore of ambient sound (by Max Pappenheim) playing almost constantly, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The first encounter between Romeo and Juliet at the party is rather beautifully done, with them hiding under a table, but their intimate moment broadcast to the audience because Peter is filming it. Hughes seems to be carving out a niche for himself as the guy who's happy to look ridiculous - here his appearances include as a female stripper in the background, with bra straps drawn onto his back. Essentially this is a stunning two-and-a-half hour Romeo and Juliet, that unfortunately actually lasts almost three-and-a-quarter hours.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 28th of February at the New Diorama Theatre.
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.