Romeo and Juliet gets a modern, interspecies remix by Rita Kalnejais in the south London-set First Love is the Revolution. Awkward, lonely Basti (James Tarpey) is trying to make the best of his teen years in a broken home when he meets Rdeca (Emily Burnett), a sassy fox cub hunting on her own for the first time. With Rdeca’s family not the most functional either, the two black sheep find solace in each other when they discover they understand each other’s speech. Using a bold metaphor for the deliberate choice to alienate or accept of The Other, this urban adventure through back gardens and fox dens is simultaneously funny, brave and disturbing, whilst excellently performed and with writing that keeps the audience on its toes.
The cast of six with a 50/50 gender split is also commendably diverse in age and ethnicity. Hayley Carmichael leads the pack as the fox family’s fierce matriarch. Tarpey and Burnett are the only cast members who do not play multiple roles, though the skill in these young actors is evident in their charming chemistry. Lucy McCormack of performance art acclaim plays a wide array of roles from Rdeca’s hyper but affectionate sister, to the neighbourhood cat that taunts thuggish guard dog Rovis (Samson Kayo) and the prozzie who lives upstairs from Basti. Basti’s dad (Simon Kunz) who wants his meek son to uphold the fighting, womanizing “ideal man” is also Gregor mole and a delightfully gossipy old hen in a cardigan, tweed skirt and wellies on a never ending search for grass seed. Director Steve Marmion’s choice to use animalistic physicalities is just enough of a reminder that not everyone in this play is human, but the movement is not so overpowering that it interferes with the characters’ relationships.
Anthony Lamble’s set design is almost post-apocalyptic; it is certainly grim enough to reinforce the lack of comfort in all of the characters’ lives, human or animal. Human domesticity precariously sits on rolling black slopes that the actors nimbly climb over and tunnels they scurry through. Philip Gladwell’s lighting smoothly morphs through sunsets and sunrises that dictate the wild rhythm of Rdeca and Basti’s all-night adventures.
Kalnejais’ use of the animal/human relationship is a lovely idea, with Basti paralleling the open minds of those willing to see The Other as themselves; he is a citizen opening his home to a refugee rather than labeling her as a pest. The concept harks back to ancient fables and folktales, connecting our often-disconnected present from the rich heritage of our storytelling past. However, whilst I certainly don’t believe she is advocating bestiality, it is the first thing that springs to mind when Basti and Rdeca are caught in a compromising position. It’s not revolutionary, just gross. Maybe it makes me a prude, but I find fox and human sex damages the metaphor rather than reinforces it.
Regardless of acts that would have the RSPCA up in arms, this is a stunning production in Soho Theatre’s main house that brings the emotional scale of Shakespeare to modern day London, with a visceral fervor that celebrates the magic of young love and accepting those that are different from us.
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