Review: West Side Story by Exeter University Footlights

Everyone knows the storyline of West Side Story: essentially, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s own Romeo and Juliet. On at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre from 29 Jan – 1 Feb and performed by the university’s Footlights Society, the story takes place in the Upper West Side neighbourhood in New York City in the mid-1950s. The cast’s American accents are generally pretty strong, although some were less successful in making the transition from Surrey student to New York gang member.

The adaptation follows the rivalry between the ‘Jets’ and the Puerto Rican ‘Sharks’. Running at 2 and a half hours, I found that time flew by as I became completely immersed in the development of a heart-rending love story between Tony, a prominent member of the ‘Jets’, played by Nick Kenchington, and Maria, played by Amy McIntosh. Maria’s Hispanic accent was both outstanding and adorable (you’d have thought she really was Puerto Rican), while the sexual chemistry between the two didn’t detract at all from what is, essentially, a ‘true love’-story romance between two young, innocent teenagers.

The singing was incredible, complimented whole-heartedly by the orchestra, focusing on Jerome Robbins’ conception and choreography. Particular highlights included “Maria” and the classic “I Feel Pretty”. What was most exciting about the performance was the credible depiction of life in 1950s New York, in terms of the antagonistic and frequently violent culture of gang rivalries. The different ethnic background of the two groups, represented in their accents, mannerisms and in their clothes, provided a vivid sense of the racial tensions pervading metropolitan life at this time.

Choreographed by Aaron McCrossan, the dancing was emotionally intense, fluctuating between high tragedy, comic drama, and brutal action. Director Jordan Murphy commented: ‘with the talented cast of Footlights, West Side Story will be the biggest show the society has ever put on, and I’m very proud to be part of such an incredible team’. I whole-heartedly agree with him.

by Conor Byrne

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