A tale of star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstance… sort of. That’s the premise of Welsh playwright Gary Owen’s (“Iphigenia In Splott”) latest endeavor with director/longtime collaborator Rachel O’Riordan, “Romeo and Julie.” Set in Splott as a working-class drama in none other than the National Theatre, “Romeo and Julie” tells the story of teen love and all its complications. With stunning performances and a touching script, Owen manages to conceive a muted, modern-day rendition of its Shakespearean almost-namesake without the dramatics but with double the impact.
Romeo (Callum Scott Howells), pronounced Roh-may-o, affectionately Romy, is a teenage single dad committed to raising his daughter Niamh with little-no-help from Barb (Catrin Aaron), his alcoholic mother. Despite the sleepless nights, constant crying, and reeking “poonamis,” Romy adores Niamh, refusing Barb’s insistent pleas to put her up for adoption. He has a meet-cute with Cambridge-bound Julie at a cafe, thus setting both on an unexpected course.
They existed mere streets away from each other, living opposite lives. Julie, with her parents’ full-fledged support, hopes to be an astrophysicist. Between his mother’s exploits and tending to Niamh’s increasingly unaffordable needs, Romy has no time or money to explore his own ambitions or find out if he even has any. Despite themes of class struggle drizzled in the subtext, their cheeky, naturalistic banter maintains a light-hearted, mellow tone you can’t help but fall in love with.
Owen crafts a lovers’ strife more universal than his bombastic source material, the connection becoming an afterthought as the play progresses. Julie struggles to remain ahead of her love and has to deal with the consequences of her parents’ fury as her future at Cambridge is called into question. “Romeo and Julie” handles a love in which two paths are parallel lines, mathematically incapable of crossing — unless they’ve got fate on their side. Aided by an understated script filled with contemporary references from Stormzy to Stranger Things, Owen captures your full attention as Julie’s tragedy unfolds. Can she throw caution to the wind and sacrifice her academic goals, or should she pursue her dreams but lose Romy and Niamh in the process?
Sheehy and Howells carry the show effortlessly with their performances and chemistry. Sheehy expertly sells Julie’s spunk and clever wit with an assist from Owen’s brilliant one-liners. Howells’ Romy is endearing and wholesome both with Julie and as a gentle albeit immature father to Niamh. Aaron is a scene-stealer throughout, her alcoholism explored with a much-needed levity that doesn’t discount the problem. Julie’s parents, played by Paul Brennen and Anita Reynolds, served well as mouthpieces for the many class issues explored within the play, though potentially underused as characters.
Set and Lighting Designers Hayley Grindle and Jack Knowles opted for a more abstract production design, with geometric lights overhead like stars in a night sky and dance break transitions from scene to scene. These creative choices were accents to the story whilst somehow bringing Cardiff alive in the most minimalistic way.
Straight out of Splott into the heart of London, “Romeo and Julie” is an anomaly. It’s an everyman love story that is, at its core, so undoubtedly Welsh. It’s equal parts refreshing and eternal. In the end, Owen may not spoon-feed you all the answers, but you might come to find that you don’t really need any.