Review: The HandleBards’ Romeo and Juliet at Hoghton Tower, Preston by Beth Armstrong

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

‘One household, all alike in dignity, In our living room, we rehearse our scenes’ reads The HandleBard’s Facebook promo post. The cycling Shakespeare troupe, formed in 2013, are finally back in the bicycle saddle after emerging from lockdown with a new version of Romeo and Juliet directed by Nel Crouch. This year’s configuration of Bards is co-habiting trio Tom Dixon, Lucy Green and Paul Moss, which includes real-life couple Tom and Lucy…perhaps making Paul the third wheel (pun intended). “Which is why I’m playing Romeo!” announces Paul to laughter, an arrangement which allows for some entertaining mock-jealousy and several warning glances at guilty-looking audience members.

Melodramatic madness in the world’s greatest love story. Image: Rah Petherbridge

On arrival at the picturesque venue, Hoghton Tower’s walled garden, we’re welcomed and informed of the safety guidelines, doused with hand sanitiser, and led to a spot well clear of other households. All this is done by the HandleBards themselves and it’s lovely to feel part of something wholesome and organic: it’s clear that though a renowned and fully-fledged company, the HandleBards are still mucking in with all aspects of their show, from stewarding to stage set-up (though no doubt there is a dedicated team supporting them). Though all the safety precautions are adhered to – including no more infamous picnic stealing (luckily for me and my Kinder Bueno) – refreshingly, the play itself contains no lockdown references, no toilet paper gags, and no pandemic buzzwords. Despite having seen some interesting pieces of art and media exploring the crisis, it’s actually blissful to just have 80 minutes of pure fun and escapism.

A masked masque: Tom Dixon, Lucy Green and Paul Moss. Image: Rah Petherbridge

That said, one allowance is made for when Juliet (Lucy Green) runs to Friar Laurence’s gaff – the route being the long perimeter of the socially-distanced audience – where she complains ‘It’s much farther than usual!’. But apart from that, almost everything else is the usual HandleBards affair, featuring their classic conventions like repurposing bike equipment (tyre pumps become swords and pannier straps secure the stage), slow-motion fights, rapid character swapping, and their signature humorous, high-energy cavorting.

With just three actors, the troupe play multiple roles, often using just a wig held by an extended arm as a stand-in when more than three bodies are required in one scene, demonstrating clever choreography by director, Nel Crouch. To avoid confusion, the audience are helped to distinguish between characters through exaggerated accents, colour coded costumes bearing big ‘C’s and ‘M’s to denote house loyalties, and bike bells attached to each performer’s finger, which ding periodically to signal a character switch.

Text Box: Juliet (Lucy Green) on her balcony, the Nurse (Tom Dixon) and musical accompaniment from Paul Moss.
Juliet (Lucy Green) on her balcony, the Nurse (Tom Dixon) and musical accompaniment from Paul Moss

The characterisation in the production is suitably overblown for a tragedy turned comedy: Juliet (Green) swings from silly and girlish to teenage tearaway, screaming at her mother that she “come[s] anon!”, while Romeo (Moss) is a typical Northern sixth former with backwards cap and denim jacket. The emphasis on the lovers’ young age pokes fun at Shakespeare and allows for an amusingly melodramatic death scene, after which the pair get up unceremoniously, announcing “We’ve gotta play the other characters…”. These include: Lady Capulet (Moss), a soprano-voiced snob; Mercutio (Dixon), a Scouse mad lad; and Friar Laurence (Moss), re-imagined as a monk-cum-ninja with an accent one foot in Scotland and the other in the West Country, constantly dousing the hormonal teenagers with holy water. This is a Shakespearean retelling that certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. But the audience favourite has got to be the Nurse (Dixon), with her comical stoop, heralding “alright”s, and senior moments, which culminate in her mistaking Juliet’s wedding ring for a jelly sweet and spitting it out with “Sorreh! Thought it wore a ‘aribo!”

Amongst the crazy antics and the hilarity, there is a tender moment between the eponymous tragic heroes when they first lament their love for one another: it’s created with just Shakespeare’s verse, four chords on a ukulele, and the natural accompaniment of the wind, which is a testament to the HandleBards’ ability to completely change lanes in both tone and pace before we’re back to more high jinks and tom foolery. Music also opens and closes the show, with stripped down vocal harmonies, as well as a funny interval song dedicated to an unfortunate front rower. The staging is equally stripped down: there isn’t exactly a set to speak of, only a raised platform, and costume changes are done simply with actors’ backs towards us (there’s isn’t time for anything else!). It feels unpretentious and transparent – a return to the bygone era of touring players entertaining the rural masses, and it’s all the richer for it.

The Handelbards in their fetching cycling socks

The HandleBard’s Romeo and Juliet is a pocket rocket – small but mighty – and its 80 minutes is jam-packed with more accents, more character changes, and more laughs than you can Shake a spear(e) at. It’s witty, fresh, and appears to be performed by a cast who genuinely love what they do. More than that though, this production facilitated a group of strangers coming together for a bit of fun on a patch of grass, just long enough to keep the rain off. And in these challenging times, it’s the perfect antidote, if only for a couple of hours.

If you too seek happy days to happy nights, Romeo and Juliet, and the HandleBards’ new children’s show, Gnora The Gnome’s Daytime Disco, tours across England (and the Netherlands!) until 19th September.

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