'Romeo and Julie' review — an intense reflection of hope and heart in working-class communities

Read our four-star review of Gary Owen's Romeo and Julie at the National Theatre, running through 1 April. Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy star.

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Two households, both alike in community, in fair Splott where we lay our scene. In Gary Owen's latest play, Romeo and Julie, the fateful Shakespeare tragedy is spun on its head: Verona balconies are swapped for Cardiff cafés, alcoholic mothers and pushy parents replace the feuding Montagues and Capulets, and the closest thing to an apothecary is an abortion pill. In relocating the Shakespeare story to a deprived, working-class area, there's an added visceral charge to a timeless story of love and loss.

Owen’s writing is a social commentary on the importance of access and equal opportunities for all. Romeo — often called Romey — is now a deadbeat teenage dad. He has no choice but to raise his daughter Niamh after the child's mother left them. Julie — there's no "t" — dreams of studying physics at Cambridge University, aspiring to become the next Stephen Hawking.

Our star-crossed lovers meet in Splott's hottest destination, the local recreation centre. Although they're from different walks of life, they quickly find solace in each other. But when Julie falls pregnant, the pair grow apart and question their worth in the Welsh working-class area.

Callum Scott Howells brings charismatic flair to a potentially stereotype-able character; his Adidas tracksuit-clad Romeo saunters with a cheeky debonair, and every calculated eyebrow raise and pursed lip lures Julie in. He's paired with the equally magnetic Rosie Sheehy as Julie, delivering a smarmy, all-knowing teenager who simultaneously instructs others and considers their feelings in conversation.

Like in the original Shakespeare, there's feuding families to contend with. Catrin Aaron shines as Romeo's mum Barb, an alcoholic prone to volatile outbursts. Meanwhile, Julie must deal with constant interrogation from her dad Col (Paul Brennen), and her step-mum Kath (Anita Reynolds). Brennen and Reynold shake Julie up with impassioned discussions of "good schools" and "working hard", both reducing me to tears.

Hayley Grindle's bare set further reflects the lack of opportunity in a place like Splott — in 1971, 63% of homes in Splott had no inside toilet, and residents were forced to move out. So when Jack Knowles’s squiggly LED lights pulsate to signal the International Space Station, it's our first chance to see a glimmer of hope, another chance at life for these deserving kids.

As Juliet's mum says, “it’s awful not being in charge of your life — what’s worse. Not being in charge.” Where Romeo and Juliet may be about romantic love, Romeo and Julie is a tale of tough love. In a world where it’s so easy to let go and give in, these vulnerable teenagers wear their hearts on their sleeve, doing all it takes to support one another in their darkest times.

Romeo and Julie is at the Dorfman Theatre through 1 April.

Photo credit: Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy in Romeo and Julie (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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