Romeo and Juliet-Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best known plays, and particularly for those of us who were teenagers in the 90s a certain film version is more than etched into our minds as well. Personally speaking as well this was, by pure accident rather than design, the third Romeo and Juliet I’d seen in a month. 
All images Keith Stanbury  
Within minutes any fears of this being a ‘by the numbers’ version of the play were quickly dispelled. Co-directors Mark Modzelwski and Jack Paterson have created an innovative approach to the play. It’s a dark, production that brings out the more disturbing streaks often glossed over for the easier romantic elements of the play. ‘Easy’ also isn’t something you would use to describe the production-the audience is asked to work as well by challenging them to engage with an alternative look at the text. 

The elements are all there, the warring families, the glamourous moments, the fights, and of course the lovers. But it’s a world that might not be exactly what the audience expects. Quickly breaking down expectations and flipping them on their head with some seamless ensemble work in the introductory moments, it becomes clear that elements of the story may not be as we expect or as they seem. 

Although the leading roles are uniformly excellent, it is this ensemble work which is the highlight of the production. From the choreographed gang rivalry of the opening moments which brought to mind a kind of post-modernist reference to West Side Story’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, layered back into the original, to the constant presence and reactions of the ensemble which fleshed out the play and breathed new life into scenes that sometimes pass as filler. 
It’s clear the directors worked with the actors as a company, rather than focusing on just their leading parts, and everyone had a vital part to play in every scene. From the Nurse or Lord and Lady Capulet being unseen observers, to Balthasar becoming a mysterious sometimes seen, sometimes unseen figure in scenes all added to a sense of mystery and newness around this well-worn play. 

The mixing up of characters-and gender roles- was also a welcome addition. So with Tybalt becoming a woman (and a hell of a feisty one at that played by the talented Asha Cecil) and Benvolio becoming two people (Ben and Volio, Stephanie Smith and Edward Kettle) and the previously mentioned Balthasar played by an eerily hypnotic Carys McQueen who really lent emotional weight to the all-seeing role. Across the play the ensemble adds to the narrative, engaging with the story, enhancing the storytelling and bringing a new energy to the play. 
The principle roles really feed off this sense of a company and their performances are enhanced by it. Mikey Howe as a confident but likeable Romeo gives a contemporary feel and likeable air to Romeo. Often reduced to just his love-lorn laments Howe draws out the fun, young Romeo who seems like the kind of guys you’d want to be around, and yes quite probably fall in love with. Helen Randall is a gentle but engaging Juliet, again giving her young girl a real sense of personality- some lovely exchanges with the nurse and her parents bring out the other sides of her character. And together their chemistry is excellent, and gives a real sense of young love’s energy. 
The story may be well-worn and familiar but there is a frisson of new energy to this production. There is always a balance to be struck in staging Shakespeare, many audiences balk at the idea of innovation preferring the traditional route. And traditional often works, and certainly has its time and place, but there is something to be said for taking the leap into the unknown. In staging this different approach to the classics it feels like Everyman is respecting the intelligence of its audiences, challenging them to come along with the fantastic company and try something new. This darker twist with its many additions and spins on the ‘original’ might not be what everyone is expecting, or to everyone’s taste, but certainly nobody can fault the directors and the company for daring to give them something new.
And what about me? My three runs of Romeo and Juliet were bookended by two very innovative productions. The middle one was the current London production directed by Kenneth Brannagh. And as much fun as that was, I’d much rather see this (or anything else come to that) by Modzelewski and Paterson.

Romeo and Juliet runs until 30th Jule

‘Allo ‘Allo – Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

All photos Simon West
Last night saw the second show in Cardiff Open Air theatre, classic comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo. Now if nothing else, I think we can all agree we need a good laugh right now, and the company don’t disappoint on that front.

Staging classic sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo on stage has elements of both blessing and curse for any actors. On the plus side, you know the material is already a hit, on the negative, it’s already been a hit on television and that can be a tough act to follow. The cast rise to that challenge admirably, and the audience respond warmly to familiar characters and catchphrases while the cast breathes new life into familiar characters.
For those unfamiliar, ‘Allo ‘Allo was a BBC sitcom which ran between 1982-1992. Set in World War Two in a small town in occupied France where Rene Artois runs a cafe. When not running a cafe he is in turn helping the resistance, hiding clueless British airmen, helping hide stolen artworks and generally being involved in multiple double-crossing shenanigans at once. Oh and conducting simultaneous affairs with both his serving girls. Meanwhile Gestapo officer Herr Flick is conspiring to steal artworks from fellow German officers, Colonel Kurt von Strohmand Captain Hans Geering are conspiring to steal the valuable artworks as well, Michelle DuBois is running the French resistance through the cafe and British spy officer Crabtree is doing his best to help by posing as a French policeman. So far, so chaotic.

The play focuses on two main stories, each revolving around the running gag in the series about a stolen Van Klomp painting, proper title ‘The Fallen Madonna’ but a running joke in the series referred to it as ‘The fallen Madonna with the big boobies’. In the first half the Germans are trying to claim the painting back, Herr Flick is trying to steal the painting and Rene is of course trying to keep it for himself. The only logical response? Hide it in some German sausage of course! The second act revolves around a visit from the Fuhrer, who of course also wants the painting of the Madonna (with the big boobies). So to stop the Fuhrer from getting the painting everyone schemes to get it for themselves…by dressing as the Fuhrer. How many Hitler’s does it take to steal a painting? That would be telling…
It’s a fast paced piece the requires the cast to be one step ahead at all times, and they respond brilliantly. Expert comic timing is displayed across the board, as it some excellent physical comedy-notably from David O’Rourke as Herr Flick, who maintains the stoic deadpan exterior of the Gestapo officer while executing some brilliant moments of physical comedy. His counterpart Helga Geerhard (Helen Flannagan) has some brilliantly executed set pieces that compliment her witty performance with some outlandish and brilliantly funny visual comedy, and as a duo they work seamlessly.
It’s a challenge taking on such well known characters but everyone rises to the occasion with enthusiasm and confidence. Paul Williams as Rene has the bigger challenge of holding the piece together as narrator, which he does with confidence and charm. He is warm and funny and while there is the hint of Gordon Kaye’s television performance, it’s also Williams’ own.
The whole cast manage to balance their television counterparts with their own interpretation. Standout cast members were Richard Thomas as Captain Bertorelli and Osian Llewellyn Edwards as Lieutenant Gruber. Thomas is outlandish as the Italian General with many medals (one for fixing Fiats) who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the German scheming. Thomas veers on the right side of pantomime caricature, delivering the big performance needed from a man wearing a hat that looks like a dead chicken, but also keeping Bertorelli feeling like a real character and a charming likeable if ridiculous man. Edwards has much to play with taking on Gruber, the hapless Lieutenant who Rene fears has a bit of a thing for him. Camping it up in the first half in unintentional flirtations with Rene, and discovering the police in compromising positions lets Edwards play up to this role, and he highly entertaining to watch even in the background of the café scenes. It is also a lovely touch that the theme song at the end is sung by Edwards-transformed momentarily from camp German officer to charming 1940s crooner!

The audience adored ‘Allo ‘Allo, and it was clear from the laughs of anticipation that many of them already loved the television series. Loved catchphrases were greeted with enthusiasm and loved characters enthusiastically welcomed on stage. And there is something wonderfully charming about an audience getting to revisit something they love in a new incarnation. Even for those unfamiliar with the television series (which I must confess to!) there is much to enjoy, and for those of us unfamiliar actually the little bonus of discovering these brilliant characters for the first time with this brilliant cast. But remember afterwards to slip away….like a phantom into the night…