It's not often you see Romeo literally light Juliet's fire in Shakespeare's tragedy. But on the opening night of this latest offering in Kenneth Branagh's West End season, Lily James' Juliet breathed too heavily on her candle during the marriage scene, leaving Richard Madden's beefcake Romeo to gallantly light her flame with his.
It would be churlish to say that this unplanned moment was the closest the couple get to creating real sparks. They do in fact make a fine, sexy couple. There is chemistry if not combustion. But then they've done it before in the recent Branagh-directed movie version of Cinderella, which probably explains why Game of Thrones star Madden (wouldn't it be simpler to say when an actor is not in the TV series?) has more than a touch of Prince Charming about him. Which is to say at best Madden is dashing. At worst he is too stiffened by courtly manners and displays a bearing that is more officer class than testosterone teen.
It's left to James' mischievous Juliet to bring some real energy to an evening that wears its style on its sleeve. (Designer Christopher Oram evokes 1950s Verona where everyone dresses in Armani-chic.) In the balcony scene she declares her love between swigs from a bottle of plonk. And she tugs unchastely at her white nightdress as she imagines a future with the man whose family she has been brought up to hate.
But this is play that can exist more vividly in the mind than on stage. And so it proves here. Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford inject a thriller pace to the proceedings, but the one thing this tragedy needs is a sense of foreboding and impending doom. Instead any hope in this is undermined by the most ill-judged Nurse (Mira Syal) I have ever seen. Perhaps television comedy actress and writer Syal was aiming to deliver the archetypal Italian matriarch. But if she was, she instead ends up being the Capulet household's only Jewish mother as she frets around her charge. Even more problematic is her instinct to go for laughs at exactly the wrong moment. When she makes seductive eyes at the priest whose actions will determine the lovers' fate, it's like someone stood up at funeral to make a dirty joke.
Derek Jacobi's (very) aging swashbuckler Mercutio will remain a long time in the mind. A camp dandy, he lives in reputation that must have been forged decades earlier and hasn't been seen since until Tybalt comes along. How he negotiates that encounter is the one genuine source of tension here. It's a rare take on the role that works as well as Syal's fails. If the casting decisions seem strange, then they are no stranger than Branagh choosing one of Shakespeare's least reliable plays for his commercially risky season – and on the evidence here, for no better reason that it's one of the Bard's most famous.