Feelgood Theatre Productions
Heaton Park and Hall, Manchester
25 July 2018 to 12 August 2018
Now that’s what I call a balcony scene. Red streamers point upwards toward the top of the Grade 1 Listed Building, Heaton Hall, where Juliet (Nia Coleman), spot-lit by a setting sun, addresses her lover, Romeo (Ned Cooper). Caroline Clegg, director of Romeo and Juliet, certainly knows how to stage a scene that demonstrates why the return of Feelgood Theatre to Heaton Park is so eagerly anticipated.
The production pays tribute to the history of the location. The Egerton family, owners of Heaton Hall, liked to stage their own plays and aren’t going to let the fact they are now ghosts get in the way of tradition. The guest due to play Romeo is indisposed, but Ned Cooper, a passer-by from the 21st century, finds himself pressed into taking the role.
Promenade productions tend to rely on gimmicks to distract the audience from the physical discomfort and inclement weather that often blight such plays. Caroline Clegg prefers to use imagination. Pop songs are sung in the style of Shakespearean ballads (Nia Coleman has a tremendous operatic voice and it is not wasted). Benvolio is played by, and as, a woman with a flirtatious Sophie Coward seeming to have more than a little interest in Romeo.
But Feelgood do not substitute novelty for quality; the cast speak the verse beautifully. Ned Cooper allows a maturing of Romeo as the boisterous character adopts a more regal stance, hands behind back head high, as he addresses his friends. As is often the case Nia Coleman's slender but steely Juliet steals the show with a performance that ranges from a comedy double act with her nurse (Nicola Jayne Ingram) to raging heartbreak.
The most striking feature of Romeo and Juliet is, however, a pair of 'Spirit Dancers' (Kezia Coulson and Ryan Upton on the company’s Internship Programme) whose silent dancing enacts the passion of the lovers, shadowing them and reflecting the feelings that Romeo and Juliet dare not articulate. Kezia Coulson’s solo, lit only by candles, dancing tip-toe in Juliet’s tomb, is a highpoint of the evening.
The production attracts audience members of all age ranges from very young children to people old enough to wonder, having sat on the ground, how best to get up. The promenade aspect works best in Act One where scenes are broken into short sequences allowing plenty of movement. The death duel that concludes the first Act occurs deep in a wonderfully atmospheric shady wood. The need to squeeze in as many scenes as possible limits the extent to which the audience can wander around in the less successful second Act, but there is still the chance to walk through Heaton Hall which acts as a gothic setting for Juliet’s tomb.
The tragic story of Romeo and Juliet is an ambitious choice for a promenade production but Feelgood Theatre overcomes the potential distractions and exploits the setting and beautiful weather to provide a memorable and moving version of Shakespeare’s classic.
Reviewer: David Cunningham