Teenage kicks

Romeo and Juliet Lyric, Hammersmith

Friar Laurence's warning to Romeo, "they stumble that run fast", could act as a cue for Neil Bartlett's Romeo and Juliet. Fresh, vivid and funny, the production hurtles through the story at a great lick. Bartlett works with a pared-down text and bare stage, relying on Hugh Vanstone's fine lighting to sculpt the space and set the mood. One scene melts into another, the characters are constantly on the move and you are swept along in Romeo and Juliet's headlong rush to destruction.

This makes for an urgent, youthful staging and Emily Woof fits it brilliantly with her appealing and wonderfully unaffected Juliet. She looks 14, but there is no visible effort involved - no petulance or kittenish behaviour. Her Juliet is a vital, passionate young woman - a volatile combination of self-assurance and nervy shyness - who takes charge of her life because she has to. She gives away the fact that childhood is not long gone only when, imagining the prospect of waking in the Capulet vault, she rips at her pillow in terror. Her verse speaking is not of the best but, that aside, she holds the stage with ease.

The production also conveys forcefully the fact that Romeo and Juliet are adolescents living at a pitch that everyone else has long since forgotten. This is helped by Roberta Taylor's excellent nurse - who, with her cropped hair and pack of ciggies, looks like a kind but harassed schoolteacher - and David Foxxe's burly, solid friar. As they struggle to deal with Romeo and Juliet, you get a strong sense of them taking the parental role in a world where the real parents are far too distant to understand their teenage children - Souad Faress is glamorous, but cool, as Juliet's mother, while Burt Caesar, as Capulet, is dignified, busy and remote.

The production is blessed with countless excellent little touches - as Juliet leaves for her secret wedding, the nurse slips off her own ring and gives it to her: a gesture of real affection.

But there are also some problems with it. While the first two- thirds of the show seethe with energy and ingenuity, the last third lacks interpretation - the tomb scene, in particular, feels unfinished.

A few essential elements are also missing. There is little sense of real danger - the fight scene, despite Sebastian Harcombe's mercurial Mercutio and Ashley Artus's menacing Tybalt, is not nearly as highly charged as it could be. Secondly, there seems to be a lack of electric charge between Romeo and Juliet. Stuart Bunce's gentle Romeo, though he has charm and grace, does not seem a match for Woof's Juliet and she, in her turn, never quite makes you believe that she genuinely cares for him. At the end, neither of them moves you sufficiently to get across the full scale of the tragedy, the terrible price paid for peace.

It is a production that has a great deal going for it, and one that looks set to ripen during the run. For the moment, though, the friar's warning seems apt in more ways than one: this production plays with tremendous pace, energy and vitality, but stumbles towards the end.

n `Romeo and Juliet' is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (081-741 8701) to 11 March; then at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0532 451295), 18 March-29 April

Sarah Hemming

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