‘Romeo and Juliet’ Review: Plenty of Style, but Little Love

As the male lead entered the stage in a new production of “Romeo and Juliet” in London, a single, very loud whoop erupted from the orchestra level. Nobody else joined in — this is Britain, after all — but the breach of decorum was telling. This particular Romeo is the big-screen superstar Tom Holland, of “Spider-Man” fame, and his pulling power helped tickets for this show’s run sell out within hours — even though the actor playing Juliet wasn’t cast until many weeks later.

Yet this “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Jamie Lloyd (“Sunset Boulevard,” “The Effect”) and running at the Duke of York’s Theater through Aug. 3, is no straightforward crowd-pleaser. The visuals are stripped-down and the staging unconventional; instead of indulging the giddy melodrama of young love, the emphasis is on brooding atmospherics. The show is slickly executed by a talented cast and production crew, but its understated rendering of the lovers’ romantic infatuation may leave some theatergoers wanting more.

The stage is dark, and entirely bare except for a sign that announces the setting in chunky capitals: VERONA. The performers, in monochrome streetwear, are illuminated by hazy spotlights. (Set design and costumes are by Soutra Gilmour.) In several scenes, they speak from fixed positions, stationed behind microphone stands, sometimes facing the audience rather than each other. The gloomy visuals are complemented by snatches of ambient techno and a dull humming sound that conjures a sense of anticipatory dread. To keep the audience on its toes, some scene changes are punctuated by blinding lights and obnoxiously loud flashbulb clacks. (The sound is by Ben and Max Ringham, the lighting by Jon Clark.)

Amewudah-Rivers, center, with live video footage of Freema Agyeman, who plays the nurse, and Michael Balogun as the friar, behind her.Credit…Marc Brenner

The minimalist staging puts an extra onus on the actors to make the script shine, and they don’t disappoint. Holland gives a controlled performance as Romeo, evoking the halting, hopeful awkwardness of a love-struck teenager with understatement. As Juliet, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers is similarly restrained: Tentative and inscrutable during the early phase of the courtship, she is at her best in the scenes in which she stands up to her father, Lord Capulet (Tomiwa Edun) as he pressures her to end her to break it off with Romeo. In these moments, Amewudah-Rivers — who is making her West End debut — displays an impregnable abstractedness that rings true to the stubborn determination of adolescence.

The supporting cast is also less experienced than the illustrious leading man, but for the most part, you wouldn’t know it. Edun convinces as the hectoring, overbearing patriarch. Freema Agyeman plays the Nurse, the affable go-between who enables the lovers’ forbidden affair, with a fine blend of sassy assertiveness and quasi-maternal tenderness. Ray Sesay’s Tybalt is impressively menacing and Nima Taleghani, with his wide-eyed and gentle bearing, is tenderly protective as Romeo’s trusty friend, Benvolio.

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