For the love of God don’t come to the NT expecting warring families, Shakespearian insults, and bumbling apothecaries. Gary Owen’s down-to-earth ‘Romeo and Julie’ wears its source matter very, very lightly, to the point where it’s only after you leave the theatre that you trace the connections between Shakespeare’s tragic couple and this pair of teenagers, struggling with the responsibilities of young parenthood in a working-class Welsh community.
Instead of centring the push and pull of romantic love, Owen ingeniously charts another tug of war: the one between achieving your personal dreams, and sacrificing yourself for your family. His 18-year-old Romeo (Callum Scott Howells) has nobly chosen to put aside his own ambitions in favour of dealing with his baby daughter’s ‘poonamis’, with little help from his alcoholic mother Barb (the drily hilarious Catrin Aaron), who’s always minutes away from calling social services.
But Julie’s dreams are harder to put on hold. Rosie Sheehy is engagingly spiky and complex as this ambitious teenager, who’s got an offer to study physics at Cambridge. She falls for both Romeo and his baby. But her parents are furious when this love threatens the academic future they’ve given their all to support.
Both Romeo and Julie explicitly question why we’ve created a world where a pair of loving young parents are seen as a problem, instead of a potential blessing. But Owen also shows how Julie’s changing priorities drain the life from her: ‘I'm too exhausted to be brilliant,’ she sighs, putting her books aside.
This is closely naturalistic, witty, skilled writing, shot through with subtle tensions and resentments, and given life by Rachel O’Riordan’s full-blooded production. But where Owen’s breakout, rave-reviewed monologue ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ was unapologetically heartbreaking, this play feels more cautious.
This Julie and Romeo are sensible, holding back from the emotional extremes of their Shakespearian counterparts, or from expressing any anger about the economic pressures falling on working-class parents (tougher than ever right now). And perhaps that’s because they inhabit a world that feels generic, rather than universal. They don’t talk about normal teenage stuff, save chippie teas and a brief reference to Stormzy, while Julie's love of physics doesn’t yield any especially illuminating metaphors. Designer Hayley Grindle and lighting designer Jack Knowles decorate the stage with squiggles of neon light that feel like they could adorn any number of contemporary plays.
Still, the spark between Howells and Sheehy is just strong enough to bring a little fire to this story – and to introduce a welcome note of hope to its muted ending.