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REVIEW: ‘Painting by numbers. You get the picture, but you won’t leave the theatre on a high’

Instead of swords, the combatants in this modern dress version throw blood red powder at each other

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Cambridge University’s Marlowe Society present Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Not every Marlowe Society play is alike in dignity

Just because the actors Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Emma Thompson, Rachel Weisz, Nicola Walker, and Tom Hiddleston all graduated from Cambridge, we shouldn’t expect all Cambridge undergraduates to be gifted thespians.

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Just because in the past The Marlowe Society has given us rivetingly good versions of Shakespeare plays, we shouldn’t expect every annual Marlowe show by Cambridge students at Cambridge Arts Theatre to be more than a sixth form play. It’s not fair to.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Some years will not be as uplifting as others. They are students after all. They will become lawyers, accountants, doctors, vets, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs. Their families might be thankful. They will lead, happy and lucrative lives. Don’t let’s wish the miserable life of an actor on them.

There are some good ideas in this production, directed by professional director, Josh Seymour.

The play opens with the Montague and Capulet mothers cradling their babies as we hear the “two households both alike in dignity” speech. It ends with the two dead bodies of their teenage children as again they hold babies in their arms and weep.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Instead of swords, the combatants in this modern dress version throw blood red powder at each other. The set is composed of church chairs (with the slots at the back for hymn books). These are stacked to make Juliet’s balcony.

After Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths, the chairs hang down from the ceiling as if after an explosion. At the end, the chairs are a structure for Juliet’s tomb. Simple but effective.

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Despite valiant efforts, this cast cannot carry the comedy in the first half. There is certainly passion in the second (they find grief easier) but much of the wit and the poetry is lost because either it cannot be heard, or it is thundered out instead of being measured.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

They are not alone in modern theatre to sacrifice clarity for naturalness – and to forget that the characters aren’t reading a script, they are thinking aloud.

There is a notable performance from Imogen Gray who has the lines of both Capulet and Lady Capulet, the characters having been merged. This works well and is powerful.

She has a regal demeanour. Her speech after Juliet has refused to marry Paris deserved a round of applause. Alessandra Ray as Lady Montague has less to do but is also moving. Jacob Benhayoun is accomplished as Mercutio. (We missed him in the second half).

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Rehearsal photo: The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

Kitty Ford is a cheeky rather than romantic Romeo and Sarah Mulgrew is an engaging Juliet.

Overall, though this is the theatrical equivalent of painting by numbers. You get the picture, but you won’t leave the theatre on a high.

The Marlowe Society’s Romeo and Juliet is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, February 3.

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