Who needs a fairy godmother when you’ve got The Godfather?
That’s the question we ask ourselves as Kenneth Branagh’s Disney princess – and former Downton Abbey star – Lily James floats on to the stage at the Garrick Theatre amid a bunch of sleekly dressed Capulets.
Branagh and Rob Ashford’s take on the Shakespeare tale – the sixth of seven productions in Branagh’s season as creative director – is visually stunning, with an imposing stone set and classic costumes that take us back to the flaming heart of 1950s Verona, where everyone’s living La Dolce Vita.
“This feels rather like West Side Story”, one might muse, only to have that very thought reaffirmed with a finger clicking toe-tapping sequence worthy of Tony and The Jets minutes later. And as men in white vest tops and suspenders duel to the death on the streets, it seems as though The Sharks haven’t been forgotten either.
With a wild electronic dance session (Strictly Come Shakespeare springs to mind), some slick choreography (Ashford’s domain) and impromptu musical numbers, Branagh’s production is thoroughly enjoyable – but the same can’t always be said for its leading stars.
Lily James and Richard Madden last met on screen as Ella and Kit in Brannagh’s Cinderella and while their fairytale romance won hearts in cinemas, it’s more difficult to invest in on stage.
Game of Thrones star Madden cuts an impressive figure as Verona’s golden boy, swaggering across the space in perfectly tailored suits, draping himself stylishly across chairs in the fictional piazza, and sporting crisp white shirts with sunglasses.
His Romeo is almost akin to Robb Stark (he even gets his own ‘Red’ wedding day), but spends more time making us laugh – intentionally – than he does sweeping us off our feet.
As his bride, Juliet, James doesn’t fare much better. She enjoys one dazzling balcony sequence with a bottle of wine (it’s very clever indeed) and even surprises the audience with a song, but James can’t quite seem to shake the air of Downton’s Lady Rose or Disney’s Cinderella.
She’s by no means a poor Juliet, but the slipper doesn’t quite fit just yet. And while her chemistry with Madden is still evident, the pair just don’t smoulder with star-crossed desire for each other.
If there’s one cast member who seems made for their role, though, it’s Derek Jacobi. The veteran actor gives something of a stage masterclass as Romeo’s wing man Mercutio, a character you’d normally expect a younger actor to tackle. With every tap of his cane and swing of his step, Jacobi effortlessly steals the show.
He sashays on stage with an air of authority befitting an actor of his status, and Meera Syal isn’t far behind him.
Slipping seamlessly into the habit of Juliet’s nurse. Syal’s stage presence is superb, her lines delivered with ease, and her pointed stares bring a new element of hilarity to the Bard’s nursemaid. She burns for her mistress and Verona’s most wanted man with the kind of passion the leading duo could do with a small dose of.
Despite it all, comedy and tragedy collide in a rather enjoyable two hours and 40 minutes of theatre, which fans of Madden and James will doubtlessly flock to see.
Although when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings with Shakespeare’s greatest tale of woe, this take on Romeo and Juliet may feel a little too ‘happily ever after’.
Romeo and Juliet is at The Garrick Theatre until August 13th and will be broadcast live in selected cinemas across the UK and internationally on July 7th. See branaghtheatrelive.com for more information.
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