NORMALLY the perma-cycling HandleBards would ride into York as part of a tour de Britain devoted to shaking up Shakespeare.
No sign of an eco-friendly cast pedalling away furiously on the Theatre Royal stage this spring; instead, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green had headed north by train for this one-stop trip into Step 3 Blighty with their “bonkers and unhinged” Romeo & Juliet after 50 dates last year betwixt lockdowns.
They travelled lightly, judging by a set design confined to a clothes rail with rainbow-striped curtaining and bunting to either side. As for props, cycling paraphernalia was to the fore: bells to signify Usain Bolt-fast scene and costume changes; bicycle pumps for killing weaponry and a bike back light for, well, a light, of course.
If you are thinking by now that The HandleBards must be biting their thumb at the teenage rampage of a Shakespeare tragedy, rather than taking it seriously, you would be right. Moss and Dixon were dressed for a Boy’s Own adventure in shorts and long socks, as if awaiting instruction from Baden-Powell; Green was the one who wore the trousers.
Directed by Nel Crouch, they neither kissed by the book, nor did anything by the book, brazenly removing theatre’s fourth wall in the cause of comedy as Moss announced he would be playing Romeo, a perma-drink-in-the-hand Lady Capulet and a little part of Friar John; Green, Juliet obvs, fiery Tybalt, Lord Montague and the other part of Friar John.
And Dixon? Everyone else, from a bewigged, woefully weak-as-his-letter ‘R’ Duke to a Scouse Mercutio; a Rowlandson round-bottomed Nurse to a perpetually on-the-hoof Friar Lawrence.
Mercutio is usually the witty-tongued loose cannon in R&J; so much so, the story goes, that Shakespeare served him his early P45 for scene-stealing. Here, however, we had the Queen Mab speech and “A plague on both your houses” and otherwise a back seat for Mercutio as the humour was spread all around him.
Moss’s Romeo, in his back-to-front baseball cap, had the hang-dog air of young Johnny Vegas; Green’s Juliet stamped her foot like the teenager she was supposed to be, yet could suddenly find the beauty of her soliloquies before more giggles and teen awkwardness in her first encounters with Romeo on dancefloor and balcony alike.
Props were characters in their own right, whether the balcony worn by Juliet or the explosions of red ribbons to signify each death. Even Juliet’s sleeping potion tasted “like strawberry” and Romeo’s bottle of poison, “not bad actually”.
Socially distanced audience involvement came in the form of direct address to Chris in the front row, a good sport throughout amid such mischief and merry music-making. For never was a story of less woe than this particular Juliet and her Romeo. It would have been a tragedy to have missed out.