Director Rachel O’Riordan and writer Gary Owen have once again joined forces to take a classic text and transfigure it for the modern age. Following their critical success with Iphigenia in  Splott and Killology, the pair return in refashioning Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers as teenagers, where streets and academic potential separate them in lieu of feuding families. 

At eighteen, Romeo (Callum Scott Howells) is a single father sleeping on his alcoholic mum’s sofa,  doing his utmost to care for baby Niamh and her soiled onesies but with sleepless nights and pennies left to buy nappies, he is at risk of crumbling. His mum (Catrin Aaron), convinced that keeping the baby was a mistake, is reluctant to help, opting to watch on and comment, can in hand. A chance encounter in the library cafe sees a dozing Romeo meet Julie (Rosie Sheehy)  determinably studying for her physics A level, an offer to study at Cambridge at stake. Though the topic of conversation is relativistic momentum, it is instantaneous chemistry that the two share as flirtatious and abrasive cheek is exchanged across the table. Decisions must be made, however,  as futures loom closer and Julie’s family fear that she might sacrifice it all for first love and his baby daughter. 

Advertised as inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there is a notable lack of the bard’s work present in the Dorfman Theatre, but frankly, it is not missed. Owen’s text stands firmly apart,  whether intentional or not, to tell a story of teenage love, loss and potentiality framed in a harsh arena where opportunity and escape are seldom gifted. The language is less rhythmic than  Shakespeare’s yet still forms a sort of poetry, bolstered by the natural Welsh accents. At times bitter, it cuts through to the point, far more reminiscent of how families speak to each other instead of being over-stylised. O’Riordan’s direction trusts the dialogue to take centre stage where it can be brutally funny, thriving in the realms of dark comedy whilst simultaneously delivering heartbreak and pity. 

Fresh from his stint at the Kit Kat Club, Callum Scott Howells makes for an exceptional Romeo  (pronounced like the car manufacturer). He impressively portrays the fidgety single dad lost in new parenthood, attempting to do good by his daughter whilst hampered by his hormonal teenage brain - his physical characterisations particularly excellent in demonstrating Romeo’s decision-making process without the need for dialogue. As Julie, Rosie Sheehy is nothing short of remarkable. Wielding terrific intensity, she carries much of the emotional weight of the production,  torn between choosing love and education. Her physicality crumbles with the weight of her situation demands every ounce of energy she has left. Through Sheehy’s performance, we are reminded that these characters are merely teenagers, eighteen years old, making decisions more than worthy of those many years their elder.  

With Romeo and Julie having been influenced by maybe the most notable couple in classical theatre, Scott Howells and Sheehy needed to form a convincing couple and they do not disappoint. The sparks that fly between them are electric and authentic of a true young romance -  a combination of performance, script and direction making this possible. Completing the cast are  Catrin Aaron as Barb, Romeo’s mum who says things as she sees them, with Anita Reynolds and  Paul Brennan as Julie’s parents, desperate to make sure their personal sacrifices are not wasted in Julie - a thrilling ensemble of performers. 

The National Theatre’s Dorfman so regularly transformed in place and time sits mostly bare for this production, with a dark, tiered stage that forces the actors to form the backdrop, always watching on from afar. Fluorescent tubes like connected constellations and scientific symbols hang above the space, igniting when the couple first meet. The transitions are loud and disruptive,  employing elements of physical theatre with wicked sound design from Gregory Clarke and lighting from Jack Knowles. 

Though I’d argue this is not the production that was promised, it instead exceeds and expands on the initial self-imposed limitations of its brief to become something far more impressive. The dynamic combination of Owen and O’Riordan, now a regular recipe for success, accompanied by a stellar cast, ensure that this production is memorable and riveting. A resounding triumph of theatre.


It runs until 1 April.


Review: Henry Longstaff          Photos: Marc Brenner