You may assume a play with the title Romeo and Julie, that is billed as a “modern love story inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet”, would include elements recognisable from the classically tragic love story.
Romeo and Julie bears as much similarity to Romeo and Juliet as the cigar does to the Prince of Denmark
With Gary Owen’s new play – now at the National Theatre’s Dorfman – such assumptions are proven wrong.
Romeo and Julie barely nods to the tale of the star-crossed lovers. If the plays passed each other on the street, this new play wouldn’t even acknowledge its nearly-namesake.
Put simply, Romeo and Julie bears as much similarity to Romeo and Juliet as the cigar does to the Prince of Denmark.
We may be diverted from this surprising comparative void if Owen was saying anything original in its place. Instead, it’s a disappointingly vapid tale of two Welsh teenagers – one clever but cold, the other stupid but caring – who play pretend Happy Families for a summer before moving on with their respective lives.
Romeo (Callum Scott Howells), pronounced like the suffix to Alfa, not the prefix to Montague, is 18 year-old single father to Niamh-y (long-hand for Niamh). The baby is the result of a one-night stand (two, if you count the morning, he tells us).
Niamh’s mother – without relevance to the plot, and barely mentioned – changed her mind about keeping the baby. So ‘good old brain-of-sludge-heart-of-gold-Romey’ stepped in and took the baby to live with him in his alcoholic mother’s small flat, where he sleeps on the bed settee.
The hinted-at impoverished childhood is the implied reason for his lack of education. In turn, this lack of education is implied as the reason for his premature fatherhood. The play is not subtle with its use of stereotypes and does nothing to thwart them.
His mother Barb (Catrin Aaron) is unsupportive. She wants to deliver the baby to the “social.” Though he is drowning under the strains of parenthood, Romey refuses. He just “really really loves her” he wails. In the manner of all light-on-reality characters in all throwaway dramas.
Writ large are the signs of how life contrasts for Julie (Rosie Sheehy). She lives in a house. (2 x posh points.) On a nice road. (Make that 4.) She attends a Welsh language school. (Double to 8.) She is doing Physics A-Level. (Move over Kate Middleton.)
Julie’s ambitions are as huge as Romeo’s world is small. She stares towards the passing space station, dreaming of the life spent studying the Theory of Everything to which her conditional Cambridge offer will undoubtedly lead. Meanwhile, Romeo walks the baby round a building site “with the prossies” and wonders how he can afford more nappies.
In place of warring Veronese families, the three parents here are merely pencil sketches of statistics. Character traits are exposed but never explored.
Striving to put Julie through schooling has made Julie's father Col (Paul Brennan) ill. We don’t know how or with what. “You hear him cough in the morning” is the only reference given but never revisited.
Anita Reynolds plays stepmother Kath (these are not the most inspiring of character names). For no reason at all, she is a carer and delivers a “poor stay poor while the rich get rich” monologue that neither fits or is followed through. And the impact on Romeo of the childhood neglect from an alcoholic mother bears no relevance.
The kids meet in a café. He wants to sleep. She wants to study. After some awkward childish flirting, she offers to babysit this stranger’s child. She positions it as a way to fulfil some community volunteering requirement for one of the other, non-Physics A-levels she may be studying. No offence is taken.
As Romeo goes to rescue his drunken mother from the other side of Wales, Julie is left alone to babysit. We can only assume it’s a breeze for the non-maternal inexperienced child.
He returns and naturally, has the horn (??). They fuck. They run out of condoms but are still horny. So they do what any already struggling teenage father and Cambridge-bound student would do. They fuck a fourth time.
Cue 10 minutes spent confusing sex for love. They talk about staying together as a young family in Splott. Her parents, angered at the thoughts of her life wasted, throw her out. His mother, excited by the idea of guilt-induced benevolence, takes her in.
She finds it difficult to study. She drinks wine with the alcoholic. She begs to go back home but is refused. Meanwhile he finds it difficult to manage baby’s teething. He learns that Cambridge has a better University than Cardiff. He begs for a shag but is refused.
And they decide that life should go back to how it was before. Job done.
‘Gay Best Friends’
It’s difficult to see Callum Scott Howells without feeling the surge of love we had for him as It’s a Sin’s Colin. Whether because of that or not, he wears the persona of straight boy Romeo like an ill-fitting shell suit.
There are constant arguments about whether straight actors should, or even can, play gay roles. Less spoken about is the same question in reverse. This is understandable when only yesterday, all men (actors) were assumed to be straight. Today sexuality is visible everywhere. And the difference is about more than just levels of camp.
Howells’ Romeo comes across as a ‘straight-acting’ gay. He tries too hard, continually smacking lips, arching eyebrows, chewing cheeks, and shifting crotch. He delivers lines out to the audience like the “bants” of a cheeky chappy, but with an underlying wink of a shared secret.
Rosie Sheehy’s Julie is petulant, self-important, immature and thoroughly dislikeable. She tells us she is more intelligent than her tutor, in the way stupid people remain forever unaware of their own stupidity.
Her bonding with the baby is never shown. Her difficult decisions are easily made. Her choices come with no dramatic consequence.
Julie ostensibly falls in love with the sensitive caring nature Romeo displays as a father. As many gay men will recognise, she has really found a Gay Best Friend.
Uninspired and unsubtle
Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is uninspired, and unsubtle. The sparse staging seems built for its ease of touring adaptability. Between scenes, cast members roll over tables and spin chairs as though each scene change is a physical warm-up. When not performing, they sit on chairs facing upstage. It is the stuff of student handbooks circa 1995.
To be fair, there is little she can hang on to thematically.
The programme contains a jumble of articles. The history of Splott. Welsh language preservation. Accessible higher education. All interesting. To a point. None particularly relevant. Certainly not explored with any depth.
This is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. It is not a Shakespeare interpretation or modernisation. It couldn’t even be thought of as written ‘after Shakespeare’. Owen has taken the title, bar a couple of letters, and gutted the rest.
He’s forgotten to replace it with anything of any real depth, character, meaning, or purpose.
What remains is less of a Shakespeare plot, more of a soap storyline. And one that’s quickly forgotten.