THEATRE / Can't stand up for talking down: Paul Taylor on the English Shakespeare Company's Romeo and Juliet

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The legend scrawled over the posters and the programme for Michael Bogdanov's ESC production of Romeo and Juliet is 'JULIET 4 Romeo' - the dot on the 'i' puffed out to a heart shape. A touching reminder that the star-crossed lovers meet, mature and die in adolescence? It would be safer, it emerges, to take the graffito as a fair warning that here we have a staging that's predominantly pitched at adolescents, or 'ESC 4 GCSE' as it might have been advertised.

By chance several school parties were present on the press night. In my section of the stalls at least, the tittering and the incessant clamorous trips to the loo broke all known records. But irritation at the rudeness was comfortably outweighed by one's sincere sympathy for the restlessness.

Spare, set within a stark black surround and using minimal props, Bogdanov's account of the play talks clearly but, oh, it talks down. Points are made with such sledgehammer over-emphasis, you feel that you are being treated to remedial tuition.

Take the case of Lady Capulet, Juliet's mother. Productions often intimate that this woman, who (to judge from remarks in the play) is still in her twenties, may be suffering from a sexual discontent that complicates her relationship with the just-budding Juliet. The hints have been getting broader of late, but no one until Bogdanov has had the mother blatantly necking with her young nephew Tybalt at the ball. Clearly the day may soon dawn when Lady Capulet will be caught with her head under the Friar's habit.

Often this laboured underlining does not prevent significant aspects of the play from going unnoticed. The doubles entendres of Mercutio and pals are, of course, backed up by all manner of graphic mimes. Remember the opening credits in Dynasty? A split screen: the mean moody face of Adam Carrington on one side; on the other, a champagne bottle unable to resist ejaculating. That image seems the last word in sophisticated obliquity compared to Mercutio's rambunctious masturbation routine with the Moet we are made privy to here. True, he's young, he's randy, he's frustrated. But what the relentless visual aids may stop you noticing - by distracting you from the verse - is that he also has a fervid poetic temperament. Similarly, though there's a lot of sight-gagging about youthful hangovers in hot weather (Alka Seltzers blearily downed in a glass of dead wine et cetera), Romeo's friends never properly communicate that their bawdy banter springs from emotional possessiveness - a fear that, in a love relationship, he will outgrow them.

The acting, by and large, matches the crudity of the ideas. Joe Dixon's Romeo is effective in the early nave stages of infatuation (approaching Juliet for the first time, he can't decide whether to go for a cool, rolled-up-sleeves look or not). But his weak reaction to the killing of Tybalt and to the news of Juliet's death fails to persuade you that these are particularly momentous junctures for the hero.

In the last scene, Bogdanov has organised a startling jump-cut. After the death at the tomb, the stage goes black except for the jabbing torches of the intruders. Then the lights snap back on to reveal the lovers already metamorphosed as metallic statues, a symbol of the sacrifice it took to reconcile their warring families. Never knowing when to leave well alone, Bogdanov then labours the effect by showing the survivors posing for photographs by the monument.

Joanna Roth's petite, nervy-thin Juliet and John Dougal's roaring-voiced, dissolute Scot of a Mercutio have the power at times to distract attention from the lack of finish elsewhere. They deserve a better production; don't we all.

Lyric, London W6 (081-741 2311)

(Photograph omitted)