You can tell a great deal about a Shakespeare production by its fight scenes. All too often the fight director takes over, inserts a few bits of athletic swordplay, and then the director moves back in charge and the acting starts up again. Not here. Malcolm Ransom's fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is impressively lusty and well-paced but the secret of its success is its unexpected comedy. We've all seen amateur shows where sliding a sword between an opponent's arm and chest gives the thoroughly unconvincing illusion of killing. I've never seen it used as a smart gag to fool the opponent.
This surprising use of humour is just one of the many strengths of Rupert Goold's boisterous, updated staging of Romeo and Juliet for the Greenwich Theatre, which is itself fighting for its life after having its London Arts Board grant cut. Indeed, I have never seen a staging that finds so much humour in this famously tragic play. As the servant Peter, the company clown - stand-up comic Laurence Howarth - works big laughs by playing both in character and to the audience. Instead of a typically elderly and irritating nurse, the excellent young Clare Cathcart combines a tough no-nonsense approach with a larky sense of fun and a broad Ulster accent that makes her words positively bounce.
There are times when Goold's dedication to pace means running slipshod over text. John Marquez's Benvolio is cleverly conceived as a nervy, cocksure cockney lad but, while his rapid nasal delivery works as characterisation, the richness of the lines is too often flattened out. Perhaps he and Goold should have taken Friar Laurence's advice, "Wisely and slow; they stumble that do run fast."
The vivid characterisation, though, sets this apart from the recent RSC version. There you were made to understand every line but real dramatic impetus was lacking. Here, in most cases, there's a vivid sense of what makes these people tick. Tim Hardy's shambling Capulet, for example, is part of a carefully realised household failing to deal with Kate Fleetwood's forthright Juliet. Nicholas Irons is rather less successful as Romeo: best at displaying self-absorption and self-pity, his slightly flailing physicality signals his inability to fully inhabit and shape the role.
Act 5 gives off a whiff of under-rehearsal: there's an over-reliance on music and the deft directorial insights can descend to tricksiness (qv Paris's slow-motion death). Still, Goold scores full marks for bravery. Only 25, he has a bright future ahead of him. If this unfailingly interesting staging marks the close of a theatre willing and able to mount work of such imagination, it will be nothing short of a scandal.
To 28 March (booking: 0181-858 7755). Donations to: Greenwich Theatre Recovery Fund, Crooms Hill, London SE10 8ESReuse content