Bard in the pool went swimmingly

Romeo Juliet
Romeo Juliet
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Romeo Juliet - Victoria Baths, Manchester SOLD OUT

As you might expect from a production of Shakespeare’s love story, set in a Manchester swimming baths, this is a stripped down version, prepared to take several dramatic dives into the deep end.

More especially it signals the arrival on the city’s theatre scene of Walter Meierjohann, the new artistic director of HOME, the theatre, cinema and gallery complex due to open next spring.

Being without a home of his own until then Meierjohann, a director steeped in modern European theatre styles, alighted on Manchester’s Edwardian gem of a public swimming baths, the one that caught viewers’ imagination when it featured in a BBC Restoration project 10 years ago.

With its church-high ceilings, stained glass windows and walls and floors studded with arts and crafts tiling it is a pleasure palace well worth preserving.

Whether it makes for a theatre setting is another point entirely.

This Romeo & Juliet certainly delivers several moments of quite spectacular theatre effect, climaxing in a final scene that is remarkable in both its scale and execution.

Perhaps if it had stuck to an impressionistic take on the story throughout it might have been able to overcome a fundamental weakness – which is that swimming baths have never been noted for acceptable acoustics.

This performance is largely based in the drained pool of one of the three swimming areas and sets out to be suitably immersive with half the audience being treated to a night on the tiles as the lovers’ warring families fight it out above them.

The view is then switched as we move above the action to watch from the poolside or galleries above.

For that same half of the audience it means standing up for more than 90 minutes of a first act, which always underlines a production more interested in itself than in its audience.

The resulting effect is closer to that of a graphic novel, where the speech bubbles have been obscured.

Meierjohann evidently knows how to capture the eye, and more especially perhaps the younger audience, but there’s still no substitute for clear and audible story telling.

Either way, don’t bother packing your trunks, all performances have sold out.

David Upton