"Staged with great fluency"
-The Guardian-

"Immensely watchable"
-The Independent-

"Branagh's la dolce vita is ravishin"
-The Arts Desk-

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A pairing that is appealing rather than downright sensual

Critic Rating

25 May 2016, Garrick Theatre
Guest Reviewer Guest Reviewer
Age ain’t nothing but a number. But the way in which Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have toyed with age-blind casting in their production of Romeo and Juliet, the penultimate in the Kenneth Branagh Company’s West End residency, has all sorts of ramifications. Some are powerfully effective, as in Derek Jacobi’s unexpected casting as Romeo’s friend Mercutio; others are less so, in 29-year-old Richard Madden’s rather flat portrayal of the lovesick youth himself.

This production has been transported to a 1950s Verona, the height of La Dolce Vita, and it’s a setting that works well, its Italianate characteristics all present and correct. Overbearing mamas, Mafia-friendly papas, cups of espresso drunk in wide piazzas and at the heart of it all, the fresh-faced love affair which reunites the central pair from Branagh’s 2015 film version of Cinderella – Lily James and Richard Madden.

Perhaps carrying over a little of that Disney sensibility, theirs is a pairing that is appealing rather than downright sensual. There is little sexuality in their chemistry here, the direction keeping them apart as much as bringing them together, and there’s no mistaking that Madden just isn’t the most natural of verse speakers. He’s forthright and eager but at the expense of feeling and clarity, something exacerbated by his frequent proximity to Jacobi’s consummate speech.

Thankfully, James is much stronger, really inhabiting the role of her awkward champagne-swigging girl and giving us a powerful sense of being fully taken over by her emotions, from impulsive singer to passionate risk-taker, hers is the journey that grips the attention and the heart-strings. Elsewhere, the determined shift from over-emphatic early comedy to over-bearing later tragedy robs the show of much subtlety.

Meera Syal’s Nurse is a real victim here, severely overplayed on both sides and thus scarcely credible, a big surprise from so accomplished an actress, abetted by Kathryn Wilder’s Peter who equally goes very big with her performance. Jacobi is a saving grace in the end, playing up the camp dandy who doesn’t consider himself to be old – a failing that proves to be his undoing, lending a moment of innovative tragic gravitas, something that’s sadly lacking elsewhere.

Christopher Oram’s simple but imposing set design is effective, although the balcony scene is distractingly weirdly staged. And the production is rarely dull throughout its 2 hours 45 minutes, it just needs more of the magic that Jacobi and James bring with their passionate performances.

Reviewed by Ian Foster.

Michael Billington
There are many ways of approaching Shakespeare’s youthful tragedy: Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh take the scenic route in this new production. We are plunged into a vividly imagined 1950s Italy of dark-suited men, petticoated women, bicycling friars, patriarchal oppression and frantic partying. You feel Fellini is due any moment to film it with a movie camera and, even if the result has its oddities, the production certainly has a pulsating energy.
Holly Williams
James, as in most of her roles from Nina in The Seagull to Natasha in War and Peace, has an immensely watchable, winning quality, a mix of guileless, passionate optimism and limb-twisting, teenage awkwardness. It's a perfect blend for Juliet, although as the tragedy charges towards its inevitable end, her lines blur as she tremulously brims over (and over).
Marianka Swain
The Fifties setting has potential, with machismo injected into the patriarchal society and high style tempered by an uneasy awareness of recent bloodshed. However, it proves more of an excuse for fabulous fashion than an emotional evacuation of the play. Bellissima, and blessed with a winning star turn, but ultimately rather hollow.
Mark Shenton
When the show slows down to allow the play itself to breathe, with the final scene in the crypt and the double suicide, it at last becomes quietly affecting. But the rest of it has been so noisy that the respite is too little, too late – a bit like the lousy timing of the titular characters.
Georgie Cowan-Turner
It is a difficult feat to take Shakespeare to the West End, but Branagh has yet again succeeded. This Romeo and Juliet has the qualities of a film, which could be its curse or virtue, according to how audiences enjoy their Shakespeare. It is not what you would see at the Globe, but it is loyal to the meaning of the Bard, which is paramount. This is yet another exceptional production in Branagh’s season – a delight to watch.
Quentin Letts
Sir Kenneth Branagh directs Shakespeare with a seriousness and opulence not much seen in British theatre at present. And in luminous Lily James – Lady Rose in Downton Abbey – he has found the perfect Juliet.
Henry Hitchings
There are some flashes of wit but it is often slow going and its chief redeeming feature is Lily James as Juliet, radiating a mix of innocence and enchanting vitality. Opposite her, Games Of Thrones star Richard Madden’s Romeo does not seem youthful enough.
Dominic Cavendish
Step forth James. A terrific Desdemona up in Sheffield a few years ago, she delivers the Shakespearean goods, as alluring in her nightie as a latterday Sophia Loren, even if she could afford to lose some of her bosom-heaving, eyelash-fluttering tremulousness.