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Review: Imaginarium Theatre Romeo and Juliet ****

Performing a play set in ‘fair’ Verona is always a gamble in an English summer where the light from yonder window breaking is currently being accompanied by wind and rain.

But open-air theatre only stops for lightning, and Liverpool audiences – here ensconced beneath a chain of gazebos – are generally a hardy lot.

It’s also well worth the damp tramp into Merseyside’s woodlands and parks to see the newly-monikered Imaginarium Theatre (formerly MATE Productions).

The name may have changed, but the commitment to producing bold versions of classic tales, told with absolute clarity, happily remains, as this striking Romeo and Juliet attests.

Director Gaynor La Rocca has placed her band of players in late Settecento Italy, a frock-coated carnevale world exemplified by the Capulets’ soiree where party-crasher Romeo (Kieran McCarthy-Hoare) – scion of sworn enemy Lord Montague - first lays eyes on the fair Juliet (Patricia Hodgson).

Juliet (Patricia Hodgson). Top: Romeo (Kieran McCarthy-Hoare) and Juliet.

Imaginarium’s star-crossed lovers are believably bright, youthful and impetuous, and Hodgson is particularly impressive as the young girl torn between family fealty and an all-consuming teenage passion, mixed with a wisdom older than her tender years.

As with the rest of the cast, they deliver their lines with a directness and coherence that brings every nuance of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old text to accessible life for a modern audience. So much so that it really doesn’t need any tinkering, as happens here with Juliet’s balcony speech.

There are also a series of entertaining performances within the large supporting cast which swirls around the titular teens, including Carmel Skelly’s warm-hearted but flawed Nurse – a generous galleon in full sail, Chris Douglas’ grumbling servant Peter, and Romeo’s boisterous band of young friends, led by Holly Blue’s peace-keeping Benvolio and the mercurial Mercutio.

Connor Simkins (Mercutio) and Holly Blue (Benvolio). Photos Jake Ryan

Connor Simkins threatens to steal the show as the ill-fated swaggerer, giddily high on life and imbued with the confident immortality of youth – until he finds out that he’s not immortal after all.

Movement director Bev Norris-Edmonds has created some striking choreography sequences - including a formal dance, while under La Rocca, Juliet’s ‘funeral’ procession complete with mournful musical requiem is particularly effective – and affecting.

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