Killing RomeoThe premise of Killing Romeo, a new piece by Jazz Martinez-Gamboa at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, has promise. The play explores the personal journeys two actors take as they grapple with the heightened emotions required for, and unleashed by, their rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet. Playing the two title roles, their personal stories are entwined with those of Shakespeare’s most famous lovers – albeit without intelligence or sophistication.

I am generally wary of writers directing their own work; Martinez-Gamboa’s decision to do so on this occasion was mis-judged: shifts in pace and tone are absolutely necessary, not only for dramatic purposes, but also to replicate the nuances of natural conversation, but Martinez-Gamboa has instead impregnated the whole piece with a constant succession of pauses. This has the effect of repeatedly laying bare the inadequacies of the script, and the inability of actors to deliver anything with sufficient power or poignance to warrant such unabashed flagging.

The lack of an objective directorial hand has had unmistakably detrimental effects on Alex Marx and Antoinette Alexandrou’s performances. Under better leadership, their clumsy reactive expressions would have been less gratingly evident, and the poor sightlines would have even helped us to focus on their vocal delivery, which was reasonable.

The script itself might be passable. Where the dialogue and narrative depart from the realms of credibility, sensational acting could redeem it. The premise – which sees the characters constantly shifting between acting their dramatic roles and having a normal conversation – does have comic and tragic potential, as well as theatrical merit. There is, however, too much telling the audience about feelings, and far too little exposition. Alexandrou’s part in particular has not been thought through properly: is she a psycho or a ill-informed stereotype? Either way, she’s not a recognisable woman, even if she does say some of the cliches that our fair sex are supposedly meant to spout on a regular basis (“Is it because I’m fat?” being the most unnecessarily and ill-contrived addition). It is a mistake not to show us any cause for the pair’s attraction to one another, nor evidence of a positive working relationship from which it can progress downhill.

By placing his dialogue, characters and relationships so explicitly alongside Shakespeare’s, Martinez-Gamboa has made a very brave punt that his will stand up to the test. Unfortunately, this conceit instead serves to ruthlessly expose his play’s weaknesses.

Killing Romeo is playing at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 8 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.