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Hawaiian shirts and Bard puns: Secret Cinema’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ reviewed

By Ju Shardlow
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A group of bemused people wearing Hawaiian shirts are doing a light jog while cradling bottles of alcohol. No, this isn’t the start of a full moon party, it’s the latest offering from Secret Cinema.

‘Romeo + Juliet’ is Secret Cinema’s biggest event to date, hosting 5,000 guests at a hush-hush outdoor venue. Their take on Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Shakespearean flick promised to be a ‘festival + film screening’. Please, stop with the crosses already.

As we gathered outside the tube station, I was struck by how little effort attendees had made with their outfits: mostly Hawaiian shirts and jeans. This might have been due to previous shows getting flak for encouraging up-sells on costumes, but the beach party vibe fell slightly flat. Maybe few people had purchased the costume options available on the website, or, like me, had run into So High Soho at 4pm clutching a tenner and screaming ‘help me!’. Thankfully, enthusiastic actors dressed in Veronan finery, beach sunnies or PVC miniskirts greet you at the gates.

The carnival elements of Verona Beach are represented: there’s a carousel and a big wheel, and actual cars driving around. It’s like a prom that’s got out of hand. It’s pretty dazzling, especially once you’ve necked a tasty Lovers Spritz or other decent Bard-themed cocktails. Traders make a decent fist of Shakespearean language, mostly with amusing results – ‘Charles! Thine burger and chips art ready!’ – and the food stalls have playful names like ‘Mac ‘n Beth’ and ‘Pounded Meat’. But it all comes at a price, of course. Alas, the VIP ‘Nobles’ ticket, which gets you two drinks and a food token for a few extra pounds, is sold out.

The performance highlight was the Capulet’s Ball, with drag queens and a bang-on rendition of ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ from Mercutio (Michael Duke). He’s the stand-out star, along with Tybalt (James Byng), who oozes the terrifying physicality of John Leguizamo’s original. And those are pretty difficult Cuban heels to fill.

Fans of Secret Cinema’s impressively theatrical ‘Moulin Rouge!’ in Canning Town won’t be disappointed here, with actors performing to the film as it goes along. And it’s a bloody great film. Hell, it’s got both Leo in a swimming pool and Paul Rudd in a sauna. A sauna.

In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were actually on Verona Beach if it wasn’t for one glaring oversight: It’s England. Which, tonight, is cold. And wet. Make sure to bring something to sit on, and warm layers. Both of which would have come in much handier than the trinkets, sonnets, masks and ribbons we were asked us to bring.

And the location? Obviously, we can’t say where it is but we can say that the space is too expansive and lacks fun nooks and crannies to explore. Joining a mass gang of Capulets or Montagues is a buzz, though when actors are unmic’d away from main structures it’s hard to pick up their speeches.

The best bits are still the spark of individualism – audience participation or an acoustic music corner. So seek them out. There’s no one grabbing hands and dragging you into the smoky souk, like in Secret Cinema’s ‘Battle of Algiers’ in 2011. And if you’re not lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to catch over 20 performances during the preamble, embrace the crowd and enjoy the film. Just don’t expect Romeo to pick you out through the fish tank. 

Rating ★★
★☆☆

Secret Cinema Presents William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ runs until Sat, Aug 25. Tickets start at £69

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