Romeo & Juliet at Honeywood Museum

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

Good Theatre Directors have a vision, great Theatre Directors turn their vision into reality and fabulous Theatre Directors manage to pull that reality off so successfully that they have a resounding success on their hands. Sheree Vickers this week proved that she is truly fabulous, with her production of Romeo and Juliet charming and delighting full-house audiences at all four performances.

It could so easily have been otherwise. Sheree’s vision was so hugely ambitious and dependent on so many factors for its success or failure that most directors in her shoes would have shelved their vision completely and made another cup of tea instead.

Let’s take the venue first.

A beautiful listed Victorian house overlooking Carshalton ponds

Honeywood House, stunningly beautiful, but hardly a theatre. It’s now used as a museum, and houses some priceless treasures, so quite how Sheree managed to persuade them to allow her whole adult acting company, who are lovely but hardly dainty-footed, to take it over and have a whole audience trampling around following the action is anybody’s guess. But then, as we already know, Sheree is fabulous.

Not only did she talk them into letting her stage Romeo and Juliet there, but all the staff stayed on late into the evening, not just for performances but also for the whole rehearsal schedules in the run up to opening night. Even better, the staff all took part too – dressed as Edwardian servants for the party, they welcome us, the audience, they served us drinks and yummy cakes on the lawn, and they really helped to create the reality that we were all important guests at the ball where Lord Capulet’s daughter would accept the hand of marriage from the Noble Earl, Paris.

The audience were served drinks and cakes during the performance by the Honeywood Museum’s own staff, all dressed as Edwardian servants

This wasn’t just for show – every member of the audience had drinks and cakes while at Lord Capulet’s Garden Party

The play was set to match it’s backdrop, in early Edwardian times. The action happened all over the house, and even when scenes were happening in the garden, other characters were taking part or watching the action from the upstairs windows

Our eldest cast member, playing Juliet’s nurse, in her 90th year

Juliet, gazing at the lovely Romeo beneath her window

Sheree later admitted to me that one of her biggest fears was that the audience wouldn’t “get” the moving around the house, or that the action wouldn’t happen quickly enough for them and they’d get bored, or that people would get lost and go the wrong way and then miss the action and feel abandoned. Sheer genius got around that one. Security guards in Italian worded security vests ran into the garden as soon as Romeo had shot Tybalt, and urged all of us to come inside to a “place of safety” until the situation was under control.

We were led to the Billiard Room but on a circuitous route, pausing on the way at various rooms to eavesdrop on private family conversations. Firstly we saw Lord and Lady Capulet working out how to get Juliet to marry Paris, then a handshake pact to cement the wedding date, then on to see our lovely Brenda, who plays the nurse, plot a scene with Juliet to pretend to die before running away with Romeo, and finally, on a tiny landing at the top of the stairs, we witnessed a very distressed maid holding the fatal letter that never got to Romeo in time, telling us all how she only stays working with the family because she loves Juliet so much.

We eventually were ushered into the billiard room, where, under the watchful eye of the dowager Dame Capulet, Potpan the very naughty servant misbehaved utterly gloriously to entertain the captured audience.

A scream, a seemingly dead Juliet, a heartbroken Lady Capulet, a sternly emotional Lord Capulet and the whole audience is now part of the funeral procession, following the bereaved family back out into the beautiful gardens.

The sad finale; Romeo and Juliet both dead

Somehow it worked. It didn’t just work, it was a total triumph. From the moment we were in the queue waiting to be allowed into the housebefore the play starts, we see Romeo sneaking in and queue-jumping, we watch the hilarious Potpan stealing the cakes she’s meant to be offering the queue, right to the very end finale, it didn’t just “work” it was captivating, believable, magical and massively entertaining.

The queue, entertained by the cast before the show had even started

And there is so much I haven’t told you yet! The minstrels set the scene as soon as the audience was admitted to the theatre-come-museum-come-Lord and Lady Capulet’s garden party. They were amazing, and played guitar and violin so beautifully I wish you could hear it, but here’s a picture instead.

The talented MInstrels played for us while the family were doing last minute preparations for the garden party

Here are loads more photos!

Lord Capulet, imposingly confident, was our perfect host

Juliet’s nurse hatching a plot with her that would tragically backfire

Romeo, lovestruck already

Emily the maid, sharing her distress as the audience walked by

The garden at the back of the house, where the audience watched so much of the tragedy unfold

Wendy, playing the Dowager Dame Capulet, shares a moment with her daughter in law, Lady Capulet

Romeo and Juliet, hopelessly in love in the garden

Did I mention Romeo and Juliet were played by puppets? You know, I nearly forgot, simply because when I was watching the play I actually did forget that they were not real people. It’s amazing, I know the three puppeteers really well, and I thought that that would break the illusion for me but it didn’t. After a few moments, I completely forgot that Francesca, Sammia and Ellie were even there, driving their every movement. Backbreakingly hard work, but the three of them were simply amazing and keeping the puppets real.

However, this shot made me smile – it’s like a sneaky “behind-the-puppets” scene

I don’t think they actually marched like this in full view of the audience

And there was a fight! No pictures unfortunately, but Tybalt and Mercutio, played by Alice and Sam, fought to the death with knives in the garden until Romeo finished it with a gunshot so loud it made everyone jump out of their skins.

They had worked really hard on the fight scene, being taught every movement by Lewis Penfold, the Fight Director, one of three very experienced pairs of hands Sheree brought it to help pull off this very ambitious project. John McCraw was Sheree’s Assistant Director – because the action was so spread out all over the house Sheree couldn’t be everywhere during rehearsals. Lewis and John added so much to the atmosphere and the camaraderie of the whole production team – they really helped to shape it and make to come together so magnificently.

The other heavy-weight on the production-team was Paolo Tossio, our newly-appointed Music Director. He’s the handsome one standing outside in his very splendid blue-and-gold costume, and he was the guitar- playing minstrel too. Just like John and Lewis, he did loads more besides; Sheree had some real talent at the top for this production.

Go on, you must have noticed the costumes! Simply superb! Michelle Buttress, another incredibly talented newcomer to Savvy, worked costume magic all by herself. The excitement was palpable when the cast each first tried on their new creations – every single cast member was totally thrilled with how they looked the part.

Romeo and Juliet has taken Savvy to a completely new level. It’s the first time we’ve done a 4-night consecutive run – a huge commitment for the cast, all part-time members who normally only meet for 2 hours every Thursday evening. It’s the first time the adult company have tackled Shakespeare. For many, the archaic language was a challenge – saying the words was hard enough but to say them with meaning was a huge ask. They all pulled it off. They delivered their lines with word-perfect precision and conveyed such meaning and conviction as they did it that the audience barely registered the Shakespearian language itself because they caught every nuance of meaning loud and clear. Mixing puppets and real actors and keeping the illusion going so that the audience believe in the puppets is an art-form in itself, yet they did it with such skill it seemed effortless.

Joint ventures are not always easy to pull off, but the Honeywood staff team couldn’t have been more supportive, kinder and accommodating. We’d love to do every show with them!

And even Malcolm learnt his lines! Last minute stuff, cutting it more than a little bit fine, and causing the Director’s team some very sleepless nights, but on the night itself he was Lord Capulet personified and his lines were spoken as if he’d been born to say them.

Even the rain stayed away, though it threatened to join us every single evening.

No one wants it to finish even though it’s been a lot of hard work. You can see that etched on the faces of both Theatre Directors Sheree and John below.

Oh dear, Sheree, had Malcolm forgotten his lines again?

Oh no, John, who’s done what wrong this time?

I’ll finish with some more of the photos of this week. This is Shakespeare as it should be done. The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe should be very worried indeed!

Sam as Mercutio,

Romeo and Juliet – never work with children or animals….or puppets – they really did steal the show

Sharmaine, as a very dignified Lady Capulet

What ever was Juliet thinking of, turning down this Noble Earl Paris, played by the lovely Joe?

Romeo and Juliet, about to see each other for the first time

No photos of Alice playing either of her roles – Potpan the servant who made me so glad I can’t afford servants, and Tybalt in a beautiful purple dress created especially for her by Michelle.

And then, all too soon, it was over. My only complaint about the whole play? You can’t give a standing ovation when the audience is already standing up!

A total triumph of a performance

all photos are copyright of Andrew hYLdOn, 2019
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