Horsham’s Year of Culture is in full swing and Horsham Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society (HAODS) has done something a bit different with its latest production.
Romeo & Juliet features a principal cast of HAODS performers who have been rehearsing since May, but it also includes an ensemble cast of locals who only recently stepped into their roles after a series of workshops.
The result is interesting and encouraging.
It’s delightful to see people who haven’t had much (or any) acting experience performing in one of the greatest plays ever written.
This approach means that Romeo & Juliet is a little rougher than HAODS’ usual output, but that doesn’t take away any of the audience’s enjoyment.
The tale takes place in the traditional setting of ‘fair Verona’ in the 1300s where two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are feuding, with some younger members openly fighting in the streets. While gatecrashing a Capulet party, Romeo Montague falls in love with Juliet Capulet and vice versa. They marry in secret, but the ongoing war between families and the lovers’ raging emotions result in a devastating finale.
It’s a well-known and easy-to-understand story, but Shakespeare’s ornate dialogue certainly presents a challenge for the less experienced actors here.
They all handle it very well. From the first lines uttered by the younger cast members it’s clear that they have studied and understood the text thoroughly, communicating all of the ideas, feelings and imagery effectively.
Romeo is played by Josh Watts who is particularly strong, infusing his lines with either rage, desperation or foolish love to fully convey Romeo’s turmoil.
His talents are matched by Holly Morris as Juliet who reveals her character’s idealism, sorrow and desire to escape from her family prison.
Amelia Douglas also impresses as Juliet’s hot-headed cousin Tybalt, presenting a vicious and confrontational young man who simply cannot forgive a perceived insult.
On to the adults, David Johnson shows a different kind of cruelty as Lord Capulet who wants the best for his precious daughter even if it means forcing her to obey him. Sue Tyrell expresses this controlling nature too as Lady Capulet, trying to keep her daughter happy but ultimately being more concerned with her family’s honour.
Kev Summers as Lord Montague and Hannah Wheatley as Lady Montague seem to have fewer lines than the Capulets but use them wisely, presenting parents who are proud and protective of their clan, but share the same nasty streak as their enemies.
Everyone knows that this story doesn’t end well. However, in spite of all the violence and disaster, there’s plenty to lighten the mood.
Tess Kennedy is a hoot as Juliet’s nurse, laughing at her own bawdy jokes and adding some amusing physical comedy to the part, as well as one word that I’m sure isn’t in the original text.
Alicia Marson injects some comedy too as Romeo’s wisecracking friend Mercutio, having fun with one scene of drunken idiocy as well as her character’s love of wordplay. However, Mercutio’s sense of humour is somewhat unhinged and Alicia shows how, at times, this spills over into a kind of madness. The Queen Mab speech is a definite highlight of this production.
Playing the more reasonable of Romeo’s friends is Alex Brown as Benvolio. Shakespeare’s language flows beautifully when Alex is speaking and the right emphasis on certain words and phrases makes Benvolio seem like a beacon of sanity among all the chaos. Jan Hacker has this air about him too with his strong performance as Friar Lawrence, who agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet in the hopes of ending the feud. He recognizes genuine love, acts accordingly, but repeatedly urges caution and clear-thinking in a series of well-delivered speeches.
The confident supporting cast also includes Paul Milwright as Gregory and Apothecary, Nigel Whitehead as Balthazar, Ellie Titmuss as Abram, David Veitch as Paris and James Douglas as Prince Escalus.
A play with this mix of skill-levels is never going to be perfect and there are some moments that aren’t as elegant as they could be. The sword-fights and punch-ups, for example, are very simply choreographed (with wooden swords) so no performer is put in danger. The play sometimes gets a bit quiet too as none of the performers are ‘mic’d up’. It would work better in The Capitol studio, but, of course, the audience is simply too big for that smaller room.
Overall though, Romeo & Juliet is a very enjoyable production. And criticising it for its flaws seems like nitpicking when one of its stated goals is to get new people involved in local theatre.
It’s really good to see so many new faces on the Horsham stage, presenting a classic tale that has been well adapted and directed by Yvonne Chadwell and Audrey Lucas, with some classy original music by Andrew Donovan.
The audience seems to share this sentiment and rewards the hard-working cast and crew with an enthusiastic round-of-applause at the end.