A farce you'll want to see - and one you won't

Romeo and Juliet/Noises Off | Royal National Theatre, London; The Woman Who Swallowed a Pin | Southwark Playhouse, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Somebody has messed up at Trevor Nunn's National Theatre. The Autumn season's newly ensconced ensemble could not get into the Olivier last month to rehearse their debut show, Romeo and Juliet, supposedly because of faulty scheduling. Press night was postponed until last week. Meanwhile, the director Tim Supple had to go (apparently he had work waiting elsewhere), leaving Nunn to oversee the final rehearsals.

Somebody has messed up at Trevor Nunn's National Theatre. The Autumn season's newly ensconced ensemble could not get into the Olivier last month to rehearse their debut show, Romeo and Juliet, supposedly because of faulty scheduling. Press night was postponed until last week. Meanwhile, the director Tim Supple had to go (apparently he had work waiting elsewhere), leaving Nunn to oversee the final rehearsals.

Considering this huggermugger procedure, the end result isn't the complete catastrophe one might have anticipated. Of course, Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers can't escape their tragic fate, caught up in the broils of their rival houses. But in the acting stakes, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlotte Randle fare slightly better. Ejiofor's streetwise, modern Romeo - sauntering into an open-air cafe with bouncy dreadlocks and trendy shades - definitely grows on you. Starting off with a lot of vain swagger in the company of his buddies, he softens when he falls for Juliet. He also has a muscular energy that makes you fully believe he'd rashly leap into his enemies' orchard in pursuit of his new sweetheart.

What's problematic is, whilst Shakespeare's Romeo is a juvenile who has tearful fits at Friar Lawrence's cell, vocally Ejiofor is clearly a full-grown man. Almost declaiming his lines in deep, resonant tones, he misses the tenderness of Romeo's most lyrical raptures. The directorial decision to have many speeches addressed to the audience further reduces the intimacy between the paramours.

Thankfully, Randle's initially prissy Juliet does become sweetly sensuous in the bedroom scene, uttering her unwilling dawn farewells. This actress also shows a clear psychological understanding of her maturing character. But too often she just goes through the motions rather than genuinely embodying girlish excitement.

The ensemble as a whole seems lacklustre at this first outing. Susan Aderin's Lady Montague is particularly leaden and Lloyd Hutchinson's makes an affable but bland Lawrence. Still, Beverley Klein's Nurse - earthily guffawing then affecting airs and graces - is quite fun and Ronald Pickup's Capulet is exceptionally poignant, fiercely containing his paternal grief. Robert Innes Hopkins's minimalist set also has its stunning moments. The twin semi-circular walls of the warring dynasties' mansions wheel around our beleaguered lovers like a vast, symbolically-fractured ring.

Ultimately though, the incoherence of Supple's vision of Verona is irksome. The action has, it seems, been transported to some post-colonial African state. The Capulets are white and the Montagues are black (with machetes in military holsters). Only, incongruously, Mercutio (a blustering Patrick O'Kane) is a Caucasian Irishman and so is the odd member of the Capulet clan. This does not create a meaningful Everywhere so much as a fictional muddle. Presumably, the Irish contingent will come into their own in the ensemble's next (also delayed) production, Peer Gynt, adapted by Frank McGuinness and staged by Conall Morrison of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Meanwhile, in the Lyttelton, director Jeremy Sams is offering a revival of Noises Off, Michael Frayn's farce from 1982. One can't help observing, in the light of the Supple/Nunn crisis, that the timing of this production is painfully funny. Act One, after all, lands us in a nightmare last-minute rehearsal of a ludicrously unprepared theatre company. Has Peter Egan, playing the sorely-tried director Lloyd, pointedly grown that goatee in the style of Sir Trevor?

Beyond such localised questions, Frayn's three-act structure is undeniably neat. Having watched Lloyd's risible dress rehearsal of Nothing On - Frayn's send-up of a rickety old trouser-dropping sex farce - we spin 180 degrees. Then we view the actors backstage having crazed, silent punch-ups and lovers' tiffs, all during a heard but not seen matinee performance of Nothing On. Ultimately, we circle back to view the latter once again, only the cast have now driven each other completely up the wall, reducing Nothing On to near-Dadaist nonsense with wild ad libbing and with the props taking on a wilful life of their own.

Sams's cast create escalating pandemonium - racing back and forth through half a dozen doors - with much technical precision and flamboyant slapstick. Jeff Rawle's pitifully jinxed Frederick skids about hilariously on random sardines. Aden Gillett's jealousy-ravaged, would-be dapper Garry is cryingly funny as well, ducking flying telephones and tormented by Patricia Hodges' dotty Dotty. This will doubtless be a popular production.

Nevertheless, I found myself yawning inwardly at feeble double entendres. One should point out we've just had a RNT cast running hectically in and out of Alan Ayckbourn's House and its flipside, Garden. Moreover, Noises Off is essentially vacuous fare - except for a superficial message about having to struggle on in life as in the theatre. What this production ultimately leaves one thinking is what a far cry Noises Off is from the intellectually challenging 1998 RNT hit Copenhagen by the same dramatist.

Lastly, over at Southwark Playhouse on the Fringe, I was myself trapped in a fiasco of seemingly interminable entrances and exits. This was at an experimental promenade performance of The Woman Who Swallowed a Pin. Clare Bayley's new play deals with some serious anxieties and includes eerie scenes with ghosts haunting a pregnant thirtysomething who is obsessing about her family's history of bad mothering.

The Playhouse has atmospheric potential, being a former warehouse down a narrow ivy-clad alleyway. And in Deborah Bruce's production, pale Edwardian souls gaze down at you from the rooftops and stare in through dusty windows. The decor inside (by Soutra Gilmour) is spookily spartan with walls wrapped in dust sheets, the odd vintage standard lamp aglow and abandoned tea chests.

Regrettably, Bruce ruins everything by constantly herding her audience in small circles, marching us round the same four or five rooms in pursuit of spectres whose scenes are often unrewardingly fleeting. With narrow portals, I spent most of the night queuing, hearing distant voices and wondering what I was missing on the other side.

'Romeo and Juliet': RNT Olivier, SE1 (020 7452 3000) to 4 Dec; 'Noises Off': RNT Lyttelton, SE1 (020 7452 3000) to 2 Jan; 'The Woman Who Swallowed a Pin': Southwark Playhouse, SE1 (020 7620 3494) to 21 Oct

Comments