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Toby Young
Saturday 9th November 2002

Romeo & Juliet: The Musical / Eden / The Play What I Wrote / The Winslow Boy

The Spectator - 9th November 2002

Romeo & Juliet: The Musical is so staggeringly bad it has a real chance of becoming a camp classic, the Springtime For Hitler of the London Christmas season. Actually, the play-within-a-play it most closely resembles is The Taming of the Shrew: The Musical, the hilarious send-up of Broadway schlock that features in Kiss Me Kate. Yet there's nothing ironic about this extravaganza. From the very first moment, when the Friar emerges to stand sentinel over the intertwined bodies of the dead lovers, it's clear that Romeo & Juliet: The Musical is in deadly earnest.

It's so awful it's difficult to know where to begin. Take the book by Don Black and David Freeman. On Loose Ends last week I heard Don Black bragging to Ned Sherrin that they'd managed to tell the whole story without reproducing a single line from the original text! Young people find Shakespeare's fusty old language a bit of a turn off, don't you know. Consequently, Black and Freeman have Romeo and Juliet communicate in what they evidently think of as up-to-the-minute youthspeak, a lingo that's completely unrecognisable to anyone who's spent any time with a teenager in the past 25 years.

The same misguided idea of what will appeal to young audiences extends to the sets and costumes, both of which exhibit a fashion sense that's marooned somewhere in the mid-80s. Romeo, for instance, moons about in a pair of tight black leather trousers, while the Capulets ball takes place in the kind of nightclub you'd expect to see in an episode of Miami Vice. The overall aesthetic might best be described as Star Wars meets Adam and the Ants. In fact, given the cack-handed attempt to invest the proceedings with a youthful feel, not to mention Romeo's thick Australian accent, a better name for this show would be Neighbours: The Musical. On the other hand, that's grossly unfair to the residents of Ramsey Street. Compared to Romeo & Juliet: The Musical, the long-running Australian soap is a work of almost Shakespearean genius.

Eden, a new Irish play by Eugene O'Brien, is a wonderful antidote to the cynical commercialism of Romeo & Juliet, though I fear it may be too demanding for West End audiences. It consists of two interlocking monologues in which a husband and wife trapped in a dysfunctional relationship take turns to describe a typical drunken weekend in Dublin. It starts fairly light-heartedly, with each of them telling amusing stories about their motley collection of friends, but it becomes increasingly clear that they're a fatally mismatched couple and as the denouement looms you feel a real sense of foreboding.

Eden is what the critics like to describe as "a radio play"--it has already been broadcast on Radio 4--but if you can get past the fact that all the pivotal moments are described rather than dramatised it's really pretty good. O'Brien has gone to great lengths to capture the vernacular of this working class Irish couple and, with the help of his pin-sharp script, Don Wycherley and Catherine Walsh manage to bring them vividly to life. O'Brien's sympathies are clearly with the woman rather than the man, but this doesn't feel like an ideological bias so much as a natural reaction to the horrendous sexual inequality of this traditional Irish community. If Eden manages to stay open it's well worth a visit.

One production that's guaranteed to stay in the West End, at least until it transfers to Broadway, is The Play What I Wrote which has just returned to the Wyndham's after a sell-out run earlier this year. I raved about it the first time round and, having seen it again, I'm just as enthusiastic. A heartfelt tribute to Morecambe and Wise by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, The Play What I Wrote is a dazzlingly inventive procession of sight gags, one-liners and bad puns that's so funny I found myself almost wishing they'd let up so I could catch my breath. Watching this comedy duo, ably assisted by Toby Jones, you get the impression that they've recovered a long-lost British art form, yet far from being an exercise in nostalgia, The Play What I Wrote is shot through with a post-modernist sensibility that makes all these old gags seem incredibly fresh. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Regrettably, I didn't catch Christopher Morahan's touring production of The Winslow Boy until last Saturday, a week before it's due to close. It's extraordinarily good, among the best things I've seen this year. Not only is the play itself a minor masterpiece, the production is almost faultless. The direction by Christopher Morahan is refreshingly conventional, without a hint of self-advertisement, while the performances, particularly those of Edward Fox, Simon Ward and Osmund Bullock, are superb. The fact that it hasn't yet found a berth in the West End is scandalous. If any commercial producers are reading this and they haven't yet seen it, there's still time to catch it at the Windsor Theatre where it's playing until Saturday. If I had £125,000 to spare, I'd back it myself.

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