"Romeo, Romeo, where is f**king Romeo?" pleads a sleep deprived, anguished Juliet, her spirit broken by potty training failure and an emotionally inept husband. Romeo hides. He reads a newspaper and eats a chocolate bar cosseted behind the front door of their Paris apartment, unable to offer succour to either his hysterical wife or screaming toddler.

<i>Juliet and Romeo</i>, Lost Dog © Jane Hobson
Juliet and Romeo, Lost Dog
© Jane Hobson

Choreographer Ben Duke thrusts us into the tedium and mediocrity of married life. Juliet and Romeo - a guide to long life and a happy marriage offers a candid glimpse of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers if they had survived the gauntlet of death draughts and daggers.

We meet Romeo (Duke) and Juliet (Solène Weinachter) in couple therapy. 40 somethings staring down the barrel of middle age; burdened by a limp marriage that hasn't lived up to romantic expectations.

Attempting to address their problems, they take turns to recall memories. Acting out their hormone-fuelled dalliance, brush with death and elopement to France; they bicker about the accuracy of their recollections. In Duke's imaging, Juliet awakes before Romeo takes the poison. The business of getting to know one another follows hasty nuptials. Sitting at a Formica kitchen table they exchange superficial information as if on a bad first date.

 The blend of spoken word and choreography is darkly funny. The grit in the humour elicits pearls of warmth and empathy from the audience. The desire for a happy ending is palpable, although - spoiler alert - not meant to be. Duke's talent as a choreographer and performer is in expressing what is not said. Speaking about the work, he describes finding the cracks in the dialogue - gaps where movement can do the talking. The choreographic conversation between Duke and Weinachter is first class. A delicious awkwardness is penned by Duke's twisted limbs, his long legs shoot out from underneath him like clumsy chat up line. He sends his body in multiple directions, sometimes crumbling in on himself, or on occasion exploding like a pent-up teenager.

<i>Juliet and Romeo</i>, Lost Dog © Jane Hobson
Juliet and Romeo, Lost Dog
© Jane Hobson

Weinachter characterises Juliet as vivacious and eloquent. Seemingly confident in her own skin, Juliet drives the dialogue and pace. Yet she is a fantasist. Her physicality leaks obsessive behaviours and clamours for attention. In a duet that oscillates between foreplay and an emotional wrestling match Weinachter harnesses the strength of Juliet's misplaced convictions grappling with Romeo on an equal footing.

Musical references to Prokofiev's magnificent score and the soundtrack from Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film adaptation are a nod to Shakespeare's unerring influence in popular culture and high art. Romeo's jaw clenching attempt to dance with Juliet's slumbering body in the Capulet family crypt is a cheeky sideways look at one of classical ballet's iconic moments.

Both protagonists harbour secrets, told to the audience via two monologues. Juliet's admission is an ill-judged moment of weakness, Romeo's - by contrast - brandishes a sledge hammer against Shakespeare's 400 year-old edifice of true love.   

The ending feels a little abrupt. Tempers boil over and confessions are spoken in anger. These big revelations rush towards a hard stop we're not quite ready for. The substantial build-up and the emotional investment feels squandered. It's finely crafted theatre that trips over its own feet at the end. However, that's not what I will take away from this show. Staying with me is Duke's consummate ability to articulate tragedy through humour and convey human ambiguities with a pinpoint accuracy.

*****