'Romeo and Juliet' review – Rebecca Frecknall's fast and furious production is brimming with feeling

Read our four-star review of Romeo and Juliet, starring Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth, now in performances at the Almeida Theatre through 29 July.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

“Do you like this haste?” So asks Capulet of Paris as he plans the quickie wedding for his daughter. But it’s also the question posed by this Formula 1-paced version of Romeo and Juliet by Rebecca Frecknall (hot off Cabaret and A Streetcar Named Desire), starring Ted Lasso’s Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth, which motors through the star-crossed lovers’ tale in just two breathless hours, no interval.

With speed baked into the production’s premise, you are struck by how often Shakespeare references time in this hot-blooded play. Everyone is in a hurry, whether Juliet urging her nurse to spill her news faster, or the friar deciding to make “short work” of the lovers’ vows lest they consummate the marriage prematurely – or, of course, that pair running heedless into a deadly romance.

Frecknall’s viscerally accessible production captures the youthful impulsiveness of those callow protagonists, but also the passions of their elders, who are just as capable of making reckless choices without thought for long-term consequences. Frecknall emphasises how the conflicts and traumas here are a generational inheritance, dooming the youngsters before they even begin.

She frequently intercuts scenes, so Juliet dreamily awaiting the return of her new husband is cruelly juxtaposed by the destruction of their future via the bloody battle in the streets. Even their first meeting is portentous: as Romeo and Juliet are inexorably drawn together, Capulet barely holds back a vengeful Tybalt.

The lightning pace is facilitated by a stripped-back but excitingly propulsive production in which movement becomes a potent force, instead of elaborate costumes and sets. When a scene finishes, its participants drop to the floor as if dead, while others leap up to take their place.

Frecknall uses snippets of Prokofiev’s unsurpassable score to fuel her foreboding movement. Kinetic fights burst forth and then morph into dance, while other sequences establish mood as much as place – like the masked ball scene, in which a pack of men advance on and engulf Juliet. Most poignantly, the lovers share a slow dance with Juliet standing on Romeo’s feet, physically placing her trust in him.

The styling feels vaguely contemporary (Juliet wears knee socks, Mercutio is pure indie rocker), so it could be a comment on today’s version of that knife crime, toxic masculinity, prejudice and discontented youth. But really it seems more timeless: the explosive danger, now and then, of these emotions run rampant – the violent delights leading to violent ends – and of one generation robbing another of their choices.

The flip side is that there’s little time for anything big to land. While conceptually it’s powerful to immediately follow joy with woe, or love with death, it’s just too quick for the audience to absorb. The actors also gabble their lines – sometimes in fun ways, like Mercutio and Romeo ribbing each other in a semi-rap battle, but at other points we lose both poetry and sense.

Still, Jimoh, who shot to fame playing the endearing Sam Obisanya in football comedy Ted Lasso, emerges triumphant. His Romeo has a similar cheeky charm, his quick-witted flirtation accompanied by a disarming grin, and a prevailing gentleness – which makes it all the more wrenching when Mercutio’s death unleashes his gun-toting fury.

Hainsworth is thoroughly convincing as a fumbling, inexperienced girl, but her Juliet is no ditzy pushover; quite the contrary. “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” is a sharp retort to Romeo, and she shouts and rages during her desperate struggle to reconcile conflicting feelings – love for her husband, grief for her cousin, anger at both.

When she steels herself, gradually, to pick up Romeo’s knife and commit suicide, you experience every agonising thought that passes through her head, and every inch of the blade; it’s the most I’ve ever recoiled from that horrendous act. The whole climactic scene is a visual stunner, too, the Almeida stage ablaze with candles – evoking every life lost to this senseless feud, even before the lovers join them.

Jamie Ballard is a notably strong Capulet, lurching from a manic bonhomie to spitting, bullying wrath when his daughter disrupts his plans. Paul Higgins adds dry wit to the friar’s exclamations (“Holy St Francis!”), Jyuddah James is a sleek, dangerous coiled spring of a Tybalt, Jack Riddiford a flamboyant, occasionally vicious Mercutio, and Jo McInnes a fiercely loyal nurse in chunky boots.

Chloe Lamford’s design serves the action in its thoughtful minimalism, though does have one unforgettable element. The show begins with the cast pressing against a huge brick wall, onto which the prologue text is projected – hands splayed as we read that “civil blood makes civil hands unclean”. They’re already trapped together in this netherworld – which, when we enter, is made eerie by a constant smoke effect and Lee Curran’s strikingly expressive lighting.

It’s not quite the unalloyed triumph of Frecknall’s recent work, but it does give you that same shocking sensation of being hit by a truck. Once again, she has taken a very familiar work and given it fresh impact; no mean feat. This is a gut-punch of a Romeo and Juliet, brimming with fire and feeling.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Almeida Theatre through 29 July.

Photo credit: Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth in Romeo and Juliet (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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