REVIEW: The HandleBards in Romeo & Juliet, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 25 and 26 ****

Paul Moss: Bringing out the Johnny Vegas in Romeo in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet. All pictures: Rah Petherbridge

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.

Pulling faces: Lucy Green as Juliet, teenage tantrums and all, in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

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.

Romeo (Paul Moss), Juliet (Lucy Green) and pretty much everyone else (Tom Dixon)

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.

The HandleBards ride roughshod over Romeo & Juliet as tragedy turns to comedy in York Theatre Royal’s Love Season

“Kissing by the book” for pandemic masked ball times in The HandleBards’ unhinged and bonkers re-cycling of Romeo & Juliet for The Love Season at York Theatre Royal

IN the exhortative words of the late Freddie Mercury, “Get on your bikes and ride”.

Eco-friendly, perma-cycling Shakespearean travelling theatre company The HandleBards will be heading to  York Theatre Royal on May 25 and 26.

Directed by Nel Crouch, company founders Paul Moss and Tom Dixon and partner in chaotic irreverence Lucy Green have created an “unhinged and bonkers” version of Romeo & Juliet, the pulp fiction, early Sixties’ girl-group teenage tragedy of the Shakespeare canon.

“Forget the tears and tragedy, and get ready for some live and wired Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before,” they advise after fashioning a show replete with music, mayhem and a pile-up of costume changes under the influence of cabin fever when cooped up together in lockdown.

“It was pure fortitude that the three of us were living together,” says Paul. “We ended up living in a three-bedroom house in Crystal Palace for the whole of lockdown, and we just opened a bottle of wine and started rehearsing.”

Crouch had adapted Romeo & Juliet originally as an all-female four-hander in 2016 that then toured internationally to Singapore, Malaysia, India and Myanmar in 2017 and 2018, when Lucy slipped into various roles.

“I’d even played Juliet and the Nurse when needed, and Tom had been an emergency understudy too, so we all knew the show really well, and we decided to adapt it as a three-hander for when we could tour outdoors [in a social bubble] last year,” says Paul.

“We rehearsed it in our living room and a rehearsal room, and then we managed to tour it throughout July, August and September, and we ended up doing about 50 shows, so it was pretty extensive. We then started talking to theatres about doing a tour in March and April, but of course that all got cancelled, though we’ve managed to move a lot of the tour dates to September and October.”

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? Lucy Green’s Juliet giving out distress signals in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

The HandleBards have toured York since four fearless friends, Moss, Dixon, Callum Cheatle and Callum Brodie pedalled Twelfth Night to 20 venues in 2013. “In our first days, I drew up a map of beautiful places we could go to, and of course York was on there,” recalls Paul.

“Someone suggested Merchant Adventurers’ Hall [in Fossgate], and we made contact with Lauren Marshall [hall manager and audience development officer]. We didn’t realise there was an outdoor performance space there, but that’s where we played and then camped by the river that night! The shows became so popular that we had to move them inside the hall.”

York missed out on the Romeo & Juliet tour in 2020, but Paul’s past association with Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird in their days at Shakespeare’s Globe has brought about next week’s stand-alone performances.

“Tom used to be executive producer at the Globe, and I was among the first Candlelighters in the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre [where plays are lit by candlelight]. Tom and I have kept in touch to help each other out, and when he was interested in putting on shows outdoors at the Theatre Royal, we spoke, but instead we’re now doing the Love Season indoors.”

Usually, The HandleBards travel by cycle on their tours. “But for Romeo & Juliet, we’ve toured by van with a stage for socially distanced performances, and we’ll be taking the train to York,” says Paul.

Looking ahead, he adds: “For our upcoming all-female, comical Macbeth tour, our stage will now fit into an electric van, to go with the cycles, to give us carbon neutrality. If the show doesn’t make it to York this summer, it definitely will next year.

“Lucy, meanwhile, is going into rehearsals for Nel Crouch’s new version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest: not Shakespeare and probably not cycling, for my new company, Slapstick Picnic, where basically the company premises will be wherever I have my laptop! Only two actors will be doing the entire show: Lucy and Bill Ross-Fawcett.”

Should anyone be a newcomer to The HandleBards, what should they expect from Romeo & Juliet? “Unbridled joy!” says Paul. “There are so many parts to our shows, always changing costumes, playing different roles, always having a good time. Romeo & Juliet may be one of the world’s great tragedies, but we’re here to entertain, so if there are tears, they will be tears of joy.

Wherefore art I? Cast thine eye hither, O Juliet. Paul Moss’s Romeo pulls a face of exasperation in The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet

“Shakespeare’s plays are there to entertain and we’re just here to tell good stories. The interesting thing about Shakespeare’s tragedies is that there’s so much humour and comedy in them! 

“Until Mercutio bites the dust, there’s very little tragedy in it. It’s a comedy till then, and people forget that, trying to make it so dark. You can play it that way, but it’s a family comedy in the first half. Even if the plays are tragedies, we approach them first with the aim of finding the comedy within the tragedy.

“There’s very little violence in Romeo & Juliet until it’s self-inflicted, so it’s all revolving around a ‘thumb bite’ up to that point!”

Reflecting on the spoke in the wheel of Lockdown x 3, applied to both The HandleBards and theatre, Paul says: “We’ve been some of the luckiest people in our industry, being able to tour last year and getting back up on our feet so quickly this spring.

“The Arts Council has been so supportive to theatres, but when things start opening up again and the furloughs drop out, I think we’ll see holes where people who are freelance haven’t been able to survive . I fear there’ll be a definite impact on theatre over the next two years.”

The Love Season presents The HandleBards’ Romeo & Juliet, York Theatre Royal, May 25, 8pm; May 26, 3pm and 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at YTR is complying with government and industry Covid-19, social-distancing guidelines to ensure safety of staff and audiences.

Riding ruff-shod: The HandleBards’ Paul Moss, left, Lucy Green and Tom Dixon transforming Shakespeare’s tragic teen romance into a chaotic comedy under the influence of lockdown cabin fever

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