Breaking Baz: Zendaya Keeps The Spotlight On Tom Holland As He Makes His Shakespeare Debut In Modern-Dress ‘Romeo & Juliet’ In London’s West End

Not sure that I would equate Tom Holland and Zendaya with the same level of triple-A star firepower as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but the last time I witnessed sheer frenzied pandemonium outside the Duke of York’s Theatre was when Taylor went to see Burton read excerpts from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood in February 1982.

It was bonkers, with onlookers five deep on both sides of the street waiting for a glimpse of the superstar much-married Hollywood lovers.

More from Deadline

Four decades on, I found myself at the same theatre that has stood on the site in St. Martin’s Lane since 1892.

This time it was the occasion of the official opening night for Jamie Lloyd’s stark, modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, to give its full title, starring Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as the tragic star-crossed lovers.

This time barricades were erected on either side of the theatre to prevent uninvited fans from crashing the foyer.

Fans wait outside the Duke of York’s Theatre (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)
Fans wait outside the Duke of York’s Theatre (Baz Bamigboye/Deadline)

There were hundreds of people waiting to spot Holland and Zendaya, nowhere near the numbers I recall eager to see Burton and Taylor.

Even so, there were enough folk to make it a memorable event.

Earlier, about 30 minutes ahead of showtime, Zendaya sprinted from a car and dashed through ornate wrought-iron gates that quickly were slammed shut behind her, and dashed into the house via the stage door.

She repeated those same moves, but in reverse, after Holland had embraced and kissed Amewudah-Rivers, taken his bows with the Romeo & Juliet company and showered away the first-night sweat that glistened his face.

Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and Tom Holland take their bows with <em>Romeo & Juliet </em>cast
Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and Tom Holland take their bows with Romeo & Juliet cast

Zendaya did an Olympic sprint into a waiting car while Holland obliged his fans with a little pavement speech about how chuffed he was that they’d waited to greet him.

Good on Zendaya, I say, for not wanting to steal her beau’s limelight.

After all, it was her Romeo’s night.

Tom Holland and Zendaya leaving The Duke of York’s Theatre
Tom Holland and Zendaya leaving The Duke of York’s Theatre

The lad hadn’t trodden the boards since he appeared in Billy Elliot the Musical across town at the Victoria Palace in 2008. Initially, he played a supporting role, after which he graduated to play the eponymous working-class boy from a mining town who wanted to be a ballet dancer. He was in the show until 2010.

Holland was back at the Victoria Palace six years later when Billy Elliot played its 4,600th and final performance. He joined other young actors who’d played Billy, and they all joined in giving a dazzling encore that closed with Elton John pirouetting across the stage in a white tutu. I kid you not. I think director Stephen Daldry put one on as well.

On Thursday night, director Lloyd trained video cameras on Holland backstage, wearing a hoodie. We, in the audience, were able to follow his progress thanks to a huge screen that beamed images of him bounding up steps, walking through corridors and up onto the stage.

The women on either side of me in Row E couldn’t keep their eyes off of him.

Tom Holland in white singlet
Tom Holland in white singlet

Similarly, Freema Agyeman, playing the Nurse, purred when she glided alongside him and felt his biceps. He was wearing a white singlet and jeans. A little Marlon Brando-ish, except that Tom Holland is no Marlon Brando.

Later, she orders him to “Stand up, stand up and be a man for Juliet’s sake!”

Agyeman’s great.

Lloyd had his cast exclaim most of their lines using mics on stands, every now and again lifting them forward like a Rolling Stone.

No, they didn’t sing.

Lloyd employs the same playbook he used to electrifying effect in the recent, Broadway-bound Sunset Boulevard starring Nicole Scherzinger.

Videographers follow cast around the stage and the performance is shone onto a screen. For instance, the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet was filmed live in one of the theatre’s bars and relayed to us in the auditorium.

It was all lots and fun and there was a sense of energy but no electrifying coup de théâtré to make the back of your neck tingle.

Holland was a perfectly OK Jack-the-lad Romeo. And, when he’s a bit older, I look forward to see how he takes on the great roles of the classical repertoire.

Some Ibsen, perhaps?

Friends of Francesca Amewudah-Rivers with her parents Ros and Ayers Amewudah-Rivers
Friends of Francesca Amewudah-Rivers with her parents Ros and Ayers Amewudah-Rivers

However, I can see why Lloyd cast Amewudah as Juliet. She sure has fire in her belly, and her line readings were underpinned with youthful brio.

Good work too from Michael Balogun as the Friar and Joshua-Alexander Williams playing Mercutio.

Daniel Quinn-Toye played Paris, and also is Holland’s understudy. I’d like to see what he does with Romeo. 

A friend took her 13-year-old daughter, and she adored all of it.  Of course, she was there for Tom, but I was heartened that she wanted to go home and read the play.

And I was amused by the bloke in the orchestra seats during the interval, crying out, “Every word out of their mouths is brilliant, init?”

The thing is, this is the kind of production that will bring in a young audience.

Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton
Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton

A new audience. They don’t want to sit through stuffy, traditional productions of the Bard. Theatre needs young audiences to be excited now so they keep going back.

They want the shiny, bright rawness that Lloyd offers.

First-nighters included Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, Lashana Lynch, Stormzy, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Meera Syal, Jeremy O’Harris, Tamzin Outhwaite, Jade Anouka, Robert Glenister and Arian Moayed.

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.