Thursday 2 March 2023

Theatre review: Romeo and Julie

It's 2023 but shows that I originally had tickets to see in 2020 are still making their belated returns. Callum Scott Howells had already been slated to appear in Gary Owen's Romeo and Julie then, but in the intervening time his appearance in It's A Sin and subsequent status as The Gay Internet's Official Fantasy Boyfriend of 2021 means he brings some added star power now the show finally premieres. It was worth the wait to get the show on with Howells in place: He plays Romeo (pronounced Romeo, but usually referred to as Romy,) an 18-year-old single dad who can't even rely on his alcoholic mum Barb (Catrin Aaron) for help babysitting his daughter. Like Owen's previous plays this takes place in the impoverished Cardiff suburb of Splott, but presumably on its edges: Julie (Rosie Sheehy) only lives a couple of streets away, but has led a much easier life so far.

Currently studying for her A-levels, Julie actually stands a good chance of getting into Cambridge to study Physics, but as well as her exam results she needs to show evidence of community work. After a chance meeting with Romy in a café, a bit of free childcare seems to fit the bill.

Of course as the allusion in the title suggests, things will get a lot more personal than just a night's babysitting, and after an evening of flirting - him making fun of her knowing a lot less about babies than she does black holes - the two start a relationship. Her dad Col (Paul Brennen) and stepmum Kath (Anita Reynolds) are worried it will distract Julie from her studies and ask her to call it off, but naturally she keeps seeing him in secret. And as she finds herself suddenly in the middle of a ready-made family, Julie's certainties about what she wants to do with her life start feeling less set in stone.

Like all of Owen's plays so far this has a dark and angry undertone about injustice and inequality, with Romy and his mother as this story's sacrificial offering, abandoned at the bottom of the rung to make everyone else feel better about themselves. But despite the occasional threat there isn't the explosion of violence familiar from his earlier work, and the light and dark here leans much heavier on the light. Not just in the fact that the central couple is very funny and charming - this is the most straightforwardly entertaining of Owen's plays I've seen - but in the sense of hope that both of them can, if not escape their destinies as such, at least make the best of what they've been handed. And while his own dad is never mentioned, suggesting he joins the collection of absent fathers in Owen's plays, the fact that Romy himself has chosen to look after his daughter breaks that cycle.

Romeo and Julie is also underscored by a point about the insidious and subtle nature of class differences in this country: The title characters are presented as being miles apart in class and income, but in fact they only live a couple of blocks apart, and Julie's better prospects are only because her parents worked themselves to death, in Col's case potentially literally. We find out that at her Cambridge interview her real status was put into stark relief when a fellow candidate from a Public School was so unable to relate to someone from a Comprehensive that she'd rather leave the room than attempt conversation.

Owen's regular collaborator Rachel O’Riordan directs a well-paced production that balances the energy with the quieter moments and brings out both the comedy and tragedy, on a set by Hayley Grindle dominated by flickering neon shapes (lighting by Jack Knowles) that reference Julie's interest in the infinite - things being both huge and tiny at the same time is one of the poetic themes that underscore the show. Howells' performance feels miles away from his most famous role but equally lovable - despite his twitchy vulnerability and exhaustion Romy is effortlessly cocky and flirtatious, to the point that it's not entirely surprising if babies with his face keep springing up around Splott. He's well-matched in energy by Sheehy's Julie and they're well-supported in layered performances by the parents. This isn't just a show with something to say but one that keeps you drawn in for every moment it says it, whether with its comedy or its drama.

Romeo and Julie by Gary Owen is booking until the 1st of April at the National Theatre's Dorfman; then from the 13th to the 29th of April at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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