Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead Suffolk – until 25 August 2019
Deep under the trees, beyond Jimmy’s meerkat and camel enclosures lies a 1960’s beach: shelter, deckchairs and lounging teens, Mods and Rockers, Montague and Capulet. Shakespeare speaks the famous prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity…” as a puppet in the Punch-and-Judy booth, interrupted by the crocodile before finishing his appeal to our patience for the “two hours’ traffic of the stage”. No need for patience: Red Rose Chain’s outdoor production, under Joanna Carrick, is a blast, a treat, a serious kind of joy.
Of course, the rock ’n roll setting suits the play’s youthful vigour, with blasts of wickedly appropriate classics from Jerry Lee or Elvis: what better than “Fools rush in”?. There’s a swaggering rock-star Paris, and Juliet in a swirling polka-dot jiving petticoat. There’s running, climbing, larking comedy: Darren Latham (doubling as Paris and a grumpy behatted Lady Montague) receives my rarely given award for a Not Annoying Mercutio. Not least because Carrick has him deliver that problematic Queen Mab speech as a terrible guitar number, and the most impenetrable banter is sauced with laddish brawls. So Mercutio’s death – a boy still valiantly, angrily joking – is a proper shock, as it should be.
Ailis Duff is the nurse, all middle-aged raunchy inappropriateness in gingham pedal-pushers, never missing a laugh; Luke Wilson’s Friar Laurence – again doubling, as dangerous Tybalt – is a streak of raw Jamaican mischief, a mentor-mate who can sort you with a potion. It all fits, and it’s all fun.
And the tragedy? Oh yes, we feel it, as the light fades in the darker second half. Jack Heydon’s daftly innocent Romeo and Emmy Rose’s frolicking Juliet are as beguiling as they must be to make us weep for them, and Carrick knows exactly which scenes to leave absolutely alone, beautifully delivered without interruption. The balcony scenes (from a lifeguard tower) are tense and endearing, and there is clever chopping (smartly lit) between Juliet’s terror learning of the deaths and Romeo’s collapse in the Friar’s cell. Also frighteningly straight is a rendering of old Capulet’s patriarchal bullying of the disobedient Juliet: Soroosh Lavasan, who has spent most of the play affably being Benvolio in a ridiculous motorbike helmet, suddenly hauls out a properly horrible, unnerving power, a father not fully in control of his own darkness.
Indeed they’re a classy cast: worth noting mentioning that although it’s a substantial arena nobody is miked and amped and the discipline, despite some fine front-row larks by the nurse, is impeccable. Never think that community-based theatre is just socially useful and virtuously sweet: that several of the young cast wander amiably about greeting visitors and selling programmes does not dilute Red Rose’s professional standards. Maybe it feeds them: Carrick hauled up every single member and helper of every ability to join the curtain call, and raised a cheer for her fight-choreographers Darren and Alex. They weren’t there to take a bow: both are inmates in HMP Warren Hill where she runs a drama programme.
It could be too, I suppose, that the group’s social swoop and sense of life’s absurd variety feeds its fearlessness over contrasts in tone. For just as the growing darkness and impending grief are properly weighing on us, and the Friar’s vital letter to Romeo has gone amiss, the fatal error is celebrated. With a dancing letterbox and a GPO-uniformed chorus line doing adapted words to “Please Mr Postman”
. I am telling you, it works. On both levels.
box office 01473 603388 redrosechain.com to 25 August.