(Alfred Hickling’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/18.)
It’s not often that you find a production in which the building is a bigger television personality than anyone in the cast. Yet Manchester’s semi-derelict Victoria Baths became a national icon as the first winner of the BBC’s Restoration programme in 2003. The initial tranche of Heritage Lottery Fund cash ultimately fell short of reopening the Edwardian “water palace” as a functional swimming facility. But its air of genteel decay makes an evocative environment for the new Home theatre company, which is still homeless while waiting for its £25m arts complex to be completed.
The baths’ most natural gift to Romeo and Juliet is its segregated architectural scheme (the three pools were originally designated for first-class males, second-class males and women). Walter Meierjohann’s production opens with a startling coup: placing the audience at the deep end of an empty ceramic pit while the Capulets and Montagues emerge from the ranks of changing cubicles along each side. It can feel a bit like watching Shakespeare in a grand public toilet. But it lends Meierjohann’s vaguely post-Communist setting a requisite air of seediness, while serving up some striking images; such as when Sara Vickers’s affecting Juliet and Alex Felton’s effete Romeo demonstrate the dangerous adrenaline rush of first love by soaring high on a trapeze without a safety net – or indeed, any water – beneath them.