REVIEW: Sensational Shakespeare at Middleton Hall

Monday, 16th November 2015

FROM the moment you take your seats at Middleton Hall you are instantly transported to 16th century Verona with the sprawling staircase, elegant décor and magnificent balcony setting the stage for Misnomer Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s greatest love story opened with a bang as the argumentative Sampson and Gregory came bursting through the front door of the Great Hall, establishing a precedent that the action was going to take place all around the audience, not just on the stage. As the youngest members of the cast, Aston Need and Jack Shaw both played their parts well and opened the show strongly, breaking out into a frantic fight scene involving half the cast that set out the show’s stall as one of feud and drama.

Prince Escalus (Rob Need) broke up brawl with his booming authority, and introduced us to the two battling households. The Montagues were led by the stoic wife Grace Valente and her husband Graham Aplin, a newcomer to the stage whose measured sorrow and good character acting actually left us feeling sorry for their plight.

The opposing family played a bigger role in this production, taking us through a variety of emotions, from anger and betrayal to bitterness and loss, and they were encapsulated wonderfully by Terry Batham’s warmth and authority as Lord Capulet and Sarra Kasraoui’s powerful portrayal of the lady of the house.

We are introduced early to the lovesick Romeo, and it’s Neil Lucas’ range of emotions that make his performance so memorable. The audience is with him all the way on his journey, from meeting Juliet to finally losing her again, it’s a pure delight to watch him on the stage.

He is ably assisted by Benvolio (Andy Deeley) who proves a measured, non-judgmental friend to Romeo throughout the piece, and tries to keep the peace when everything around him is going mad.

They are joined by Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, who is neither a Montague nor a Capulet, although he is more than just an interested party in this epic feud. ‘Loyal’, ‘devoted’ and ‘witty’ are just a few words to describe Mercutio, and he is used excellently as the comedy relief in an otherwise tragic production. Alex Farrell played the part with hilarity and aplomb, bringing light into dark times with his characterisation of this pivotal part.

Olivia Shepherd as Juliet and Neil Lucas as Romeo

Olivia Shepherd as Juliet and Neil Lucas as Romeo

Olivia Shepherd plays the other protagonist, Juliet, and she really is a tour-de-force, taking us on a journey of emotions through the show. We really invest in her plight, right down to the emotional and touching scene where she wakes and finds Romeo dying in her arms. The poignancy of her portrayal was a sight to behold, and in Olivia there is a star in the making.

The standout performance comes from Tracey Hames-Sharp as Nurse. A light-hearted character initially, Tracey has funny bones and carried off the likable and jovial part excellently, but then came into her own in times of sadness, physically moving the audience to tears in her scenes with Juliet and showing a theatrical range that many actors can only wish for.

Davut Sebastian brought another touch of class to proceedings as the fiery Tybalt, whose anger and menace was loathsome and awesome in equal measure, and it is a shame that we didn’t see more of this fleeting but memorable character, played by a man brimming with acting talent.

Friar Lawrence is often seen as the glue that holds the play together, and he was in safe hands with real-life reverend Vic Van Den Bergh. It was his first foray into acting, and we have no doubt it won’t be his last, with the perfect blend of control and concern in his performance.

Tom Priestley also provided a good turn as the haughty County Paris, lusting after Juliet with the right degree of creepiness and sadness, culminating in his heartfelt demise.

Credit must also go to the supporting cast members, James Lawson as the hapless servant and Elisha Raymond the concerned citizen, who played their parts well and firmly cemented the company as one to look out for. Thanks must also go to the staff and volunteers at Middleton Hall who made the evening thoroughly pleasant and they were noting but helpful.

This was all in all a marvelous production, with the right level of comedy, pathos and fantastic physicality. An audience member remarked on the way out that it was the best small company production of Romeo and Juliet she had ever seen, and it is hard to argue with that.