The heat is humming, the Italian Gardens feel positively Mediterranean, and the music of Shakespeare’s language lilts out as far as the Channel.
The annual EODS production – this year, a riveting Romeo and Juliet – is the essence of Eastbourne.
But setting is not everything. This show succeeds on superb backroom teamwork, canny direction, and a strikingly talented cast which, like the play itself, spans the generations.
EODS director David Foster has some surprises for us, and this production never simply goes through the motions. He has assembled a fresh, energetic cast with youth and maturity nicely balanced, and his two leads are a revelation.
Shakespeare’s Juliet, remember, is not yet fourteen, and Romeo is not a lot older. Lester Seale and Emily Wood, themselves only seventeen, perfectly capture the impulsive passion and naivety of youth.
Had she been born in another era, Emily would have given Olivia Hussey a run in casting: she winsomely looks the part. We chuckle at her feisty teenage defiance and her infatuation, and we weep for the injustice of fate and family. Interacting pricelessly with her Nurse, or trembling at the feet of an enraged father – a genuinely gripping and frightening piece of theatre, that scene – Emily has the audience hypnotised.
Lester’s Romeo, correctly, is no dashing matinee idol but a shall I, shan’t I, teen with the agitated insecurity of youth sincerely portrayed. In best Romeo tradition, he does gaze longingly up at the Balcony, but he is conflicted, likeable and actually vulnerable. Highly impressive acting beyond Lester’s years.
Adventurously, David Foster casts several male roles with female actors, and it works brilliantly: not some political statement or cross-dressing exercise, but just a reflection that gender is not an issue. These predominantly youthful players carry it off with panache and confidence.
Among them, Kirsten Grinstead is a terrific Mercutio with bold body language and energy, and she vividly delivers the enigmatic, fantastical Queen Mab speech. Sofie Waghorne’s Benvolio is a splendid foil, and they play off each other with a superb, knowing vigour. How exciting to see the company’s youngest actors setting an EODS gold standard.
The talent tumbles out. A teeth-gritting, snarling Nick Carn is the essence of Tybalt, as the warring adolescents of Verona teeter towards tragedy, and Shaun Williams is a dignified, sympathetic Paris. And in a production with more comic moments than expected, Ollie Price plays Peter with enjoyable impertinence.
Not that the seasoned members of the cast are overshadowed. Richard Fisher and Marie Britton are excellent as the exasperated, and finally distraught, Lord and Lady Capulet. Their mirror-image counterparts, the Montagues, are a very credible Mark Gurney and Linda Graham-Scott.
Shakespeare’s common folk so often have all the common sense. The outstanding Jane Tingley is warm, wry and motherly as Juliet’s Nurse, beautifully turning their relationship into something credible and very touching, while Mike Barber resonates with lugubrious wisdom as Friar Lawrence.
Great support, too, from Ash Jones, Paul Walker, Heather Tingley and Amy Rayiru in smaller roles – and a special nod to the Society’s elder statesman, Bryan Ayres, whose gravitas as Prince Escalus has everyone in thrall.
No live band this year – although the Masked Ball is played to a mischievous Tudor Beatles medley – and we might have hoped for a little more music. But it’s a minor quibble, and the effects overall are beautiful, with Andy Newell’s adaptable set and Ryan Tate’s atmospheric lighting. A captivating, magical evening.
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