Last Embrace, a folk musical based on Romeo and Juliet set in Northern Ireland in 1970 at the height of The Troubles, is a true masterpiece of theatre. Tree Shadow Theatre Productions, which specialises in new adaptations and writing, create a beautifully haunting tale with clever staging and excellent direction from Louisa Wilde, who also wrote the piece.
It would be incredibly easy to butcher an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, since so many successful shows such as West Side Story already exist. However, Wilde's writing is gentle and understated and the actors embrace her words with tenderness and a clear vision. The main aim of this musical, it seems, is to ensure that the violence and terrible loss of The Troubles is not trivialised. This is not simply a folk tale – but the balance between fairy story and real life horror is heartbreaking.
Though this is an incredibly talented cast, there are a few stand-out performances. Zoe Devenish as the Narrator plays her part with a balance between glee and sorrow akin to Lochhead's narrator La Corbie, in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. She is a character powerless to stop the violence, who looks on the wives and mothers of these warring men with deep sadness. Devenish sings acapella beautifully, her voice lingering in the air; she is a true talent. Sean Prior, who portrays Ben, a cousin of Ronan (who is the Romeo of this story) is excellent. Both his lighthearted spirit in the opening portion of the play, and his anguish at the deaths of his friends, are deeply moving. Thomas Martin, as Ronan, and Sally Sydney Geake, as Julia (Juliet, of course) are very talented young actors and should be applauded for their work in this show. The overall impression you get of this cast is that there is true chemistry here.
The staging of Last Embrace is incredibly clever. No actors leave the stage at any point in the show, seated around the stage on boxes, chairs and step ladders. The simplicity of this makes it all the more chilling – they all look on as the star-cross'd lovers meet, marry and die together. Mention must also be made of the choreography – the fight scenes are excellent and not too overdone, which is not an easy thing to do.
This show leaves you with a haunted feeling – a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of theatre that stays with you.