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Review: Romeo and Juliet at the Epstein Theatre ***1/2

Stabbings, poisonings, gang warfare….400 years after his own death, Shakespeare proves it’s plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose when it comes to the human condition.

And there are tragic consequences all round of course in his tale of star-crossed lovers battling to be together against a backdrop of family feuding and enmity.

Last season Daniel Taylor Productions brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Epstein in a staging that had an impressive clarity of delivery.

The Dream is back, this time in ambitious rep with Romeo and Juliet and with many of the same cast returning from 2017.

And Taylor and his team have succeeded in delivering the same clarity of delivery in this tragedy too – you certainly don’t need to brush up your Shakespeare to understand the dynamics at play.

You may need to bring some lip-reading skills in the early scenes however, where the recorded clanging, clattering, chattering sounds of the Liverpool docks go in to unequal competition with the actors on stage.

As with last season, the production makes ranging use of the auditorium and each player has their exit and their entrance, more often than not through the rear doors and down the aisles.

Romeo and Juliet. Photos by L1 Photography

The immersive nature of the staging draws the audience in to the action, although the temptation, quite understandably, to use the theatre’s balcony for the play’s famous balcony scene means anyone sitting in the rows at the back (most of the press on press night) might be able to hear Juliet’s ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ speech but can’t actually see her.

Trisha Duffy’s adaptation moves the action from fair Verona to 19th century Liverpool, and sets it as a sectarian rivalry between the Catholic Montagues and Protestant Capulets.

This adds a different historical angle and dynamic to proceedings, and works well in the gang warfare scenes, although the apparent friendliness of both sides with Nick Wymer’s engagingly well-meaning, but ultimately hapless, Catholic priest Friar Lawrence is perhaps more narratively problematic.

The ensemble work is very good, and there are stand out performances from Lenny Wood as an impish Mercutio and Chloe Taylor who makes for a warm and sympathetic Nurse.

Meanwhile the youngest member of the cast (younger even than the lovers themselves) Isaac Lancel-Watkinson, playing an angelic choirboy, impresses with his clear and confident prologue and epilogue and a lovely bell-like treble voice.

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