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‘Never think community-based theatre is just socially useful’: ROMEO & JULIET – Wherstead Suffolk ★★★★★

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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.

rating five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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