Viv Hardwick discovers that a Mods and Rockers version of Romeo and Juliet and a Steampunk Macbeth are about to raise a laugh in the North-East and North Yorkshire

ROMEO and Juliet – and the accompanying play of Macbeth – don’t usually fall into the comedy category, but that is precisely where touring company Oddsocks has enjoyed success for 28 years... starting in the region this year with a sold-out performance on Tuesday, June 13, at Billingham Forum Theatre.

Founder and artistic director Andy Barrow calls it “Seriously silly Shakespeare” and there is certainly plenty to challenge its audience thanks to the star-crossed lovers being turned into Mods and Rockers.

Cast member Gavin Harrison, who is one of two actors creating blogs for this massive tour, admits that those born in the 1980s, or later, like him turned to the film Quadrophenia for inspiration.

“I was born in 1980 and too young to even know about the late wave of Mods and Rockers in the 1970s and early 1980s. The music we have in the show is a mixture of both periods of the 1950s and 1970s with songs from The Cure, The Jam and The Specials. There are also rock classics from people like Guns n Roses,” he says.

Harrison plays Romeo’s thoughtful cousin Benvolio and also Paris, a love rival for Juliet, with the Montagu’s representing the Mods and the Capulets becoming Rockers. “We definitely made sure we got these families round the right way, unlike a recent school examination question, particularly as that happened when we were in rehearsals. The one challenge we had was that the scooters and motor bikes involved the use of petrol, but we do have an electric moped that we’ve been trying out which I ride. It’s a full-size one and can run at 40 mph and at a touch of the throttle you are from nothing to go. We are still considering using this and there’s also a motorbike belonging to Lord Capulet (Andy Barrow) which is half-bike, half-wooden creation,” says Harrison.

Romeo is played by Matthew Burns and his biker chick Juliet is Pippa Lewis. “We decided fairly quickly that this was the ideal way to feature the two families because there’s a nice little spin on Juliet’s character. It goes against the traditional version of Juliet being entirely innocent. She is, but she wears a leather jacket. We have a licence to rev up the interest without having to change the text at all,” he adds.

There has to be cuts in the script to fit in the songs required. “There might be the odd ad-lib because this is live theatre. I think that’s why the music works so well because, in his day, Shakespeare did have songs in his plays. So, we’ve just done the same thing of including contemporary songs which fit in with the dialogue and the setting. For example, when they meet it’s against the backdrop of the song Sweet Child of Mine by Guns n Roses. We have at least 11 songs to perform and some actually fill the gap where there should be dialogue. For example, when Benvolio discovers the bodies of Romeo and Juliet, instead of giving a speech I sing You’re Wondering Now by The Specials. It’s a fitting epilogue because we incorporate the audience as Mods and Rockers as a kind of pantomime skit, which makes Shakespeare more assessable,” says Harrison.

What Oddsocks focus on is removing any fear in the audience of not wanting to listen to the Bard because his work is in a language that they may not understand.

“It’s all English and the audience can know what you’re saying or singing, even if they’ve never heard it before. I’ve had five-year-olds telling that they’ve loved a certain part of the play. It’s fantastic when they understand it,” he adds.

Harrison also appears in a comedy version of Macbeth, which tours to York, Harrogate and Redcar – while Romeo and Juliet plays Harrogate and Redcar. “I play King Duncan and come to a sticky end. I play a murderer who kills Banquo and give the closing speech. Macbeth isn’t known for its comedy, but we present it as a Steampunk version. Andy Barrrow is Macbeth and Becky Little is Lady Macbeth and costumes range from Amelia Earhart to Marie Antoinette,” he says.

The tour ranges as far as the Channel Islands and doesn’t end until September. “We’ve been to Guernsey every year since I started touring with Oddsocks in 2013, but we also take on new venues. We also like places such as RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate where we have an outdoor staging which allows us to view a lot of the botanical gardens. Last year we staged Macbeth and all the power went. It wasn’t just Harlow Carr, but the entire part of the grid in Harrogate which went out. It was probably the witches’ fault. I was on the drums and we just carried on with the performance and got a standing ovation at the end,” says Harrison.

Oddsocks tour dates:

June 13, Romeo and Juliet, Billingham Forum Theatre. Box Office 01642-552663

July 3, Macbeth, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York. 01904-501935

July 11-12, Romeo and Juliet. Outdoors. RHS Harlow Carr, Harrogate. 01423-562303

July 13, Macbeth. July 14, Romeo and Juliet. Outdoors, Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar. 01642-479500