Rome and Jewels, Peacock Theatre, London

A new spin on Romeo and Juliet

Review,Nadine Meisner
Tuesday 28 January 2014 03:43
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Back from their brief London appearances last year, Rennie Harris's rap hit Rome & Jewels returns for four weeks, slightly streamlined and more focused – which wasn't so difficult, frankly, considering its previous incarnation. Not only does the titular heroine Jewels remain an invisible ideal, but the cast has now been purged of all women, so that the edgy tribalism of America's deprived streets becomes clearer and tougher. This suits a show which, the publicity tells us, has been moulded by Rennie Harris's own rough Philadelphia background and that of his company – as well as by Jerome Robbins's West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of the star-cross'd lovers.

The result is a rap version of Romeo and Juliet, worth seeing for its street dance. The Monster Qs are the hip hop mob, marking out their syncopated jogging steps, pitching into slide-and-jerk robotic mode. The Caps are the breakdancers or b-boys, raising audience whoops with their joint-wrenching, air-churning corkscrew crouches and upside-down spins, legs scissoring. They whizz round on their heads, without breaking their necks, which leaves me completely open-mouthed.

So it figures that the show's best section is the final fight between the Monster Qs and the Caps, which takes the metaphorical form of a dance Olympics, before Mercutio (the excellent Joel Martinez) and Tibault (Brandon Albright) both get killed.

The on-stage turntable acrobatics of the DJs Cisum and Evil Tracy also get their own exciting, extended slot, their wow-wowing sounds enhanced by the drama of Ryder Palmere's video projections. But the undisputed star remains Rodney Mason as Rome, who declaims his singular mix of Shakespeare and "ebonic dialect" with charisma and vivid meaning.

He is a true and natural actor, effortlessly able to draw you into his mind and hold you suspended. True, I found about 25 per cent of the show's language impenetrable; and true, the lines "for never was a story of more woe, then this of Jewels and her Rome" don't have quite the euphony of Shakespeare's original. But, all the same, the cut-and-paste between 16th-century poetics and African-American argot leaps out at you with a raw intensity.

"Am I a thug? Or am I a lover?" asks Rome. It is because he steals Tibault's girl that the gang rivalry flares up into deadly fighting. But Rome's personal story is as much about changing his relationship to the world as about pursuing a romantic ideal. Or at least I think it is. Even if it has been streamlined, the structure still rambles with over-extended and irrelevant passages and the focus remains muzzy.

This is more community theatre than a polished West End production, suited to 11-18-year-olds less concerned with dramatic sophistication than with their own generation's culture.

To 22 June (020-7863 8222)

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