REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet, Beats and Elements (Polka Theatre)

Hot on the heels of an Offies win for Pied Piper (a Battersea Arts Centre and Beatbox Academy co-production), Conrad Murray is at it again with a new hip hop theatre production for families. Made by Polka Theatre and Beats & Elements (Conrad Murray and Lakeisha Lynch-Stevens), Romeo and Juliet is a fresh new take on the Shakespeare classic. A rare Polka production aimed at the tween market (with a suggested age range of 9-12+) it condenses the play into 60 minutes of non-stop hip hop, swapping Verona for modern day Merton.

It’s a great production that has all the flavour of the original story, updating it for modern audiences and adapting it for the younger age group. It also offers young audiences something very different to what they might have seen on stage before (if, indeed they’ve ever seen a show at all), swapping sonnets for beat-boxing. Performed by a cast of just four (Khai Shaw as Romeo and Kate Donnachie as Juliet, with Lakeisha Lynch-Stevens and Conrad Murray multi-rolling as all the Montagues and Capulets respectively), it’s fast-paced and funny, retaining the humour of the original despite ditching the light-relief character of the Nurse.

What’s very clever about this production is the way that it manages to clearly convey the plot despite being extremely abridged and sung through. I wasn’t sure how easily children might follow it if they didn’t already know the story, but Crotchet (12) was able to give me a good summary at the end.

The cast of Romeo and Juliet (Polka Theatre Co Production With Beats and Elements). Image credit: Steve Gregson

Of course, this is Romeo and Juliet so there are deaths galore but they are dealt with sensitively and relatively speedily; taking any sense of romanticism out of suicide. Perhaps aimed more towards the lower end of the suggested age range, with some audience participation thrown in to keep things light, there is still plenty in there for older audiences to enjoy. The press performance was disproportionately attended by adults, all of whom were loving the witty adaptation, which perfectly balances the London references with some nice nods to the original text. There are some great Northern line gags in there, which are cleverly juxtaposed against the shocking way in which Juliet ultimately meets her end.

There are moments of excellence in all the performances, with some awesome beatboxing skills on display. Conrad Murray and Lakeisha Lynch-Stevens bring the humour to proceedings, while Khai Shaw shines in the darker moments. Kate Donnachie is a fantastic all-rounder, giving a really relatable performance as a modern, Merton dwelling Juliet. They also work well together as an ensemble, and are clearly having a great time up on stage.

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great introduction to Shakespeare for young audiences, which should be commended for its bravery in taking on the tween market. There aren’t many shows aimed at this age group, and certainly very few that attempt to break down class barriers in the way that this one does. In addition to performing at Polka, it’s heading out on a schools tour, giving many youngsters in Merton their first ever experience of theatre (and many others their first taste of hip hop theatre). As well as getting yourself tickets to the Capulet ball, we’d highly recommend listening to this podcast from our friends over at Everything Theatre, where Conrad Murray chats about all things hip hop theatre:

Romeo and Juliet plays at Polka Theatre from 2 March to 14 April 2024. We received complimentary tickets to the press performance on 9 March.

Image credit: Steve Gregson