Thanks to the current heatwave, conditions for open air theatre productions are perfect – clear sky, warm evenings and dry ground for picnics – and it’s hard to imagine a more enchanting setting for outdoor Shakespeare than Heaton Park. This is the location for Feelgood Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet, and their promenade performance utilises the environment to great effect.
The setting sun bathes Juliet and her balcony in a golden glow; Tybalt and Mercutio meet their grisly ends on uneven ground, in a shadowy grove of trees; the latter’s famous Queen Mab speech is uttered to the sound of a distantly chiming clock. But the most powerful, immersive use of setting occurs when the audience are led into the usually closed Heaton Hall itself, through faded, gilded rooms that smell of damp and into the atmospheric, candlelit tableau of Juliet’s funeral.
The downside of a promenade performance like this one is that gaps between scenes are lengthy – it takes time to gather, shepherd and resettle an audience, breaking the spell cast by the production somewhat.
Thanks to a talented and hard-working cast however, it doesn’t take long to recapture the audience’s attention. The challenges of performing in an outdoor public space are many – projecting to compensate for a lack of acoustics, ignoring noise from passers-by, running between scenes with no backdrop to hide behind – but the cast embrace them all. Particularly strong performances come from Nia Coleman (Juliet), skilfully portraying a young girl slowly losing her innocence; Nicola Jayne Ingram, stealing almost every scene she’s in as a very down to earth, northern Nurse; and Jasmine Perkin (Peter), who squeezes every possible ounce of comedy from the servant’s appearances.
This production also features song and dance – two Northern Ballet School graduates (Kezia Coulson and Ryan Upton) depict the spirits of Romeo and Juliet, dancing alongside the lead actors during scenes and in interludes. Coulson adds to the spectacle of Juliet’s funeral by dancing solo on pointe, while two beautiful, self-choreographed duets depict the scenes Shakespeare didn’t write: the lovers’ wedding night and their reunion in the afterlife.
Songs are sprinkled throughout, from the anonymous ‘Rose Rose Rose Red’ to Elbow and Fleetwood Mac. Weaving modern songs into Shakespeare may no longer be considered daring, but choosing to follow the play’s iconic final couplet with a rendition of ‘Fields of Gold’ does suggest that on their own, the bard’s words weren’t considered sufficient. All of the songs are performed beautifully – Nia Coleman’s voice in particular is exceptional – but in places they seem like unnecessary extras.
Another addition to the story is an opening scene that depicts a modern day young man stumbling across the ghostly Egerton family – former inhabitants of Heaton Hall – preparing to put on a play. He is pulled into their world to play the part of Romeo, but this extra layer of narrative is never referenced again, making you wonder why it was included.
There may be some elements that could be dispensed with but overall, this is a delightful Romeo and Juliet with a talented, committed cast and imaginative creative team who have successfully harnessed all the opportunities and challenges presented by their chosen setting.