Youthful promise in latest Shakespeare staged in Wandle Park

The Wandle Park bandstand makes a fine stage for summer performances

Our culture correspondent BELLA BARTOCK went to see how the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet manage under Croydon’s moon-lit sky

I was joined for the evening at East Croydon by my friend, Claudia de Boozy, who winced when I mentioned the prospect of walking to Wandle Park for the annual en plein air production by CODA, the Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association.

“In these shoes?” Claudia said, with her most withering look, pointing to her Manolo Blahniks. I gathered from that response that slumming it in Boxpark probably wasn’t a good idea, either. So we took the tram, which was a bit of a novelty for Claudia, who is more used to travelling in vehicles carrying the Spirit of Ecstasy.

Duly whisked through the town centre, it was not long before we had made ourselves comfortable with a crisp rosé in hand to watch a new rendering of a well-known tale. Were we in for a treat, or, to paraphrase, never was a story of more woe than this Juliet and her Romeo?

Hot summer evening, plenty of activity in the park – kids in the playground, promenaders, perambulators and cyclists. The outside distractions were greater than I had been aware at previous such CODA productions.

Where forth art thou… Luca Crawford and Megan Claridge  perform the balcony scene

The performance was again staged from bright sunlight and into the dark, which must be a real challenge for the director and lighting crew. But with the pearl-string lighting on after dusk, the bandstand always looks lovely.

Maybe Shakespeare isn’t as much of a draw as Gilbert and Sullivan, for while there was a reasonable turnout for the first night, it was not packed out like last year’s comic opera. Maybe in this most scorching of summers, Croydon’s drama lovers prefer their theatres to be air conditioned? Certainly, we were barely through two scenes and my rosé had become distinctly luke warm.

As well as the lighting, the other challenge for the crew and cast is the staging in the round, in and around the bandstand.

Perhaps it was first-night nerves, but it was clear that they are conscious of positioning the actors to give all sections of the audience a fair view. Mostly, it all worked rather well, though I did seem to become more familiar than I would have liked with most of the cast’s backs.

Intent on finding genuinely young actors for the lead roles, the directors have cast 17-year-old Luca Crawford as Romeo and 21-year-old Megan Claridge as Juliet.

Gang crime and stabbings: Verona in the 1400s, staged in Croydon in 2018

In some past productions, less age-appropriate casting has left the audience bemused or seen the cast walk-out. I recall seeing Paul Jones, the excellent blues singer and average actor, when he was in his 40s yet given the Romeo role at the Young Vic in the 1970s. I think it was Frank Dunlop in charge there at the time. One of dear Frank’s few errors of judgement.

Such was the incredulity of the audience at this wrinkly playing the star-crossed lover that Jones stormed off stage in a huff after one fit of giggling from the stalls too many.

No such problems here, with some brave casting of young actors. Claridge has appeared in a couple of previous productions for CODA; this is her first leading role.

Opposite her, teen Crawford makes a promising debut, shifting from idealist dreamer to a young man of passion, admirably conveying the angst of his appalling situation.

Tom McGowan is outstanding as Mercutio, with fine comic timing and dramatic presence. His delivery of “a curse upon both houses!” was done with such frightening anger and conviction that I felt a chill.

When Benvolio appeared, I though Ralph Fiennes had joined CODA and had forgotten to give me a call to tell me he was in the area. Then I adjusted my bifocals and learned that the part was played by James Riley.

The Reverend Mother, played by Danielle Perrimon, offers the young lovers her advice

The role of Friar Laurence has been adapted into the Reverend Mother – Danielle Perrimon giving it her all as Wandle Park’s answer to Bishop Michael Curry, a loud, benevolent, sashaying presence with an American twang.

Dependable CODA stalwart Michael Hall plays Capulet and Phoebe Dunster makes an enthusiastic and energetic nurse.

Despite impressive and well-delivered performances by most of the cast, some members of the ensemble came across as having changed into a costume and were simply delivering lines they had (almost) learned. In a few cases, not very clearly.

Now I appreciate that this is amdram, and allowances need to be made, but such unevenness means that some of the intensity of feeling and some of the comedy was lost. Alack! Alack! A lack of emotion!

The entrance to the Wandle Park theatre is a delight on a summer’s evening

We know from past productions CODA can deliver, and as Claudia and I left to catch one of the last trams of the night, we encountered one fellow on the platform who was loudly announcing into his mobile telephone, “Why, it was all marvellous!”

CODA’s Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is being performed at the Bandstand, Wandle Park on the evenings of Thu Jul 26, Fri 27 and Sat 28, with a matinee performance on the Saturday. Tickets (£10) for tonight’s performance are available at the venue. Tickets for other performances are available to book online here.

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