‘Smashing Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet’ (Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two, until AUG 14)

“Penelope has told the story to everyone and there’s a lot of everyone – children, parents, and parents of parents – in the packed-out auld cellar that is Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars (Outstanding)

I’m wandering around the house, post-EdFringe, trying to find a way to play Penelope Solomon’s compact disk, the one she gave us after the show. The only laptop we have with the means to play a CD is lacking the inclination. As I consider going up to the loft to ask the starlings if they have a Discman I could borrow, it strikes me that I was only 5 years aulder than Daughter 1.0 is now when I was watching Penelope on some of my absolute TV favourites ‘Fist of Fun’ and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ which I had recorded on VHS and watched till the tapes wore thin. I’m glad she’s signposting her role in the classics in her promo materials. A few years back, it took me an age to figure out where I know Tim Marriott from. I grew up on 90s TV. I am as roundly educated as I am because 90s TV was different.

I’ve given up trying to find a CD player and have put on Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Slice of Hovis anyone? Now TV in the 90s – that lad, that were proper telly. Oh aye, we had cultural influences from t’ big US sitcoms, but none of these formulaic Viking detective shows or paint-by-numbers ‘Dallas’ reboots. Sure, you had fly-on-the-wall muck, but ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Celebrity Shag Island’ were tomorrow’s nightmares. TV in my day were clever. It were unique. TV in my day were as British as fish and chips and chicken tika masala. Coz you see lad, here’s what they don’t teach you post-B-word, British is a tapestry woven of many exotic threads on a comforting base of hempen homespun. Shakespeare and company would have undoubtedly toured about in Europe, picking up this and picking up that. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is set in Verona not Vale of Pickering. So if you’re going to do the play, especially for kids, you need a broad cultural vision to encompass the elegance and the artistry. You have to know stuff. Frankly, you have to have been on Telly back in ‘90s.

We enter to find a barrow, Hackney chic rather than Billingsgate pong. It’s got the same plastic ivy as Daughter 2.0 (4yrs) keeps pulling off the girls’ Step2 play taberna. Like the production to follow, the cart is light enough to capture and keep the imagination, breezy enough to suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of live performance to a younger audience, yet robust enough to carry the monumentally heavy drama. It softly whispers, “strolling players, Renaissance marketplace, twelfth night in my lord’s great hall.” This is a show that makes a small but deep impression, like reindeer prints in the snow. A lot of Shakespeare for kids, and Mike McEvoy was a friend of mine, is aimed at schools. The productions are loud, a bit in your face, as much about crowd control as forging a personal connection. ‘Smashing Shakespeare’ – and I’m sorry, the word ‘smashing’ should not be used unless Rik Mayall is describing someone’s blouse – ‘Smashing Shakespeare’ is a breath of fresh air. It’s The Bard for bairns of the ‘Cbeebies Bedtime Stories’ generation. A generation of homeschooled and forest schooled minds who know that every snowflake is unique.

Daughter 1.0 (7yrs) wrote the following in her EdFringe journal, the one with the purple fluffy cover that keeps malting in my laptop bag:

“When we walked in We saw a cart wich was used for lots of things like places to keep the spoons because they were used for people. There was only one person in the show. There were three ways to do it. One she use the decorated spoons. Two she put hats and cloukes on. And three she used puppets and had difarat voises. She played some songs that was not recanisable but pretty. The story was a tragedy. I felt intarested and exited. She was realy good at it. I loved it.”

Penelope Solomon has scored a hattrick, three goals in one game. First, she’s told an auld story brilliantly and innovatively. Second, she’s told a heavy story candidly yet sensitively. Not using puppets for Romeo or Juliet that the little ones are likely to strongly identify with – unless they identify as a small garden gnome or a cat. This simple good choice softens the play’s final blow and far more subtly so than those pre-Garrick types who said “feck it”, and replaced the last scene with the words, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Third, Penelope has told the story to everyone and there’s a lot of everyone – children, parents, and parents of parents – in the packed-out auld cellar that is Pleasance Courtyard – Bunker Two. Our man of the match is a lioness of grace and power. I can’t wait to see her next project come alive.

Come for the middle-class thrill of olive wood spoons and Shakespeare. Stay for storytelling done proper, like it was back my day. Leave knowing your little one has just broadened their cultural horizon by a country mile or three. Get your cloukes on and go see this!


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