Photograph by Johan Persson
Music and lyrics by Max Martin
Book by David West Read
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Shaftesbury Theatre – open ended run
A musical that riffs on Shakespeare while plundering the back catalogue of one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in pop history (Max Martin, who is only not a household name because he prefers the spotlight to be on the interpreters of his work: Backstreet Boys, Britney, Celine, Katy Perry, even Pink and Bon Jovi….you’ll have heard of them) was always destined to be either a car crash or a triumph. & Juliet joyously and thrillingly inhabits the latter camp (and I use the word “camp” deliberately). Throw in Luke Sheppard, a director equally at home with detailed sensitivity and balls-to-the-wall flamboyance, one of the writers of Schitts Creek in David West Read, a music video-savvy choreographer (Jennifer Weber), a cast of diverse, beautiful and supremely talented humans, and a quirky but world class design team working at the height of their abilities, and you’ve got theatrical ecstasy.
Of course & Juliet is a heck of a lot of fun, a gorgeous confection packed with sensational performances, rousing numbers, good/bad jokes and enough baubles, bubbles and flash to induce a migraine in those who prefer their theatre stuffy and formal. But what may come as a surprise is how intelligent and moving it also is: a witty brain, a genuine affection for the works of the Bard of Avon, and a warm, kind heart lurk just beneath its glittering exterior. The pandemic seems only to have upgraded its exhilaration and deepened its well of feeling….and it was pretty damn special to begin with.
Taking as it’s starting point the idea that Shakespeare’s Juliet didn’t swallow the poison when she thought Romeo was dead but got the hell out to wreak some havoc of her own, abetted by a disapproving nurse with an outrageous past of her own and a pair of best friends who egg her on while challenging her world view, it’s an anachronistic, primary coloured fantasia where sexuality, gender, body shape, even fidelity, are of zero importance compared to being true to oneself while not being an arsehole to everybody else. It’s full of attitude but equally full of love: the inclusivity and sheer joie de vivre it espouses is just what we all need after the last nineteen months.
It’s also probably the prettiest spectacle you’ll ever clap eyes on (sets by Soutra Gilmour, costumes by Paloma Young, lighting by Howard Hudson, video and projection by Andrzej Goulding): a breathtakingly inventive parade of colour and whimsy that whisks the players from a mythical Paris complete with twinkling mini-Eiffel Tower and dry ice obscured Metro signs to a fairground ride eyrie suffused with twinkling stars while also evoking the idea of being backstage during a work in progress (the ensemble are characterised as Shakespeare’s acting company working on a troubled first draft of Romeo & Juliet). This rolling buffet of visual delight is further enhanced by Gareth Owen’s sound design which skilfully marries the gap between rock stadium rambunctiousness and making the characters sound like real people. Dominic Fallacaro’s orchestrations help enormously with this too, making the pop classics sound familiar yet excitingly new minted.
When the show closed due to the pandemic, Miriam-Teak Lee had already won the WhatsOnStage award for Best Actress in a Musical but since then she’s also been handed the Olivier and in, in all honesty, it’s impossible to quibble. Her Juliet is the real deal: an authentic star performance, with killer vocals, a wicked sense of fun and a tangible warmth, she’s utterly fabulous. It’s watching a diva just before she goes supernova.
The beating heart of the show though is Cassidy Janson as Anne, Shakespeare’s increasingly infuriated and disaffected spouse (“there’ll never be another Anne Hathaway”). Already multi-layered when the show opened, she has now acquired a greater lightness of touch, and an emotional urgency that proves deeply affecting. Her tear-stained rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘That’s The Way It Is’ is the stuff of memories, vocally enthralling and emotioally devastating. Oliver Tompsett’s cocky but charming Shakespeare is the perfect foil.
Melanie La Barrie’s adorable Nurse also challenges the tear ducts with a roof raising version of Pink’s ‘Perfect’. Prior to that she is a comic joy…her rapport with David Bedella’s hilarious nobleman is utterly glorious. Their post-coital sass-ation of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’ is one of the happiest things currently on any London stage.
Jordan Luke Gage remains heroically vacuous and vocally exhilarating as the Romeo we never knew we needed: wait til you see his entrance at the end of act one…it’s pure showbiz meets rock excess. Tim Mahendran is as haunting as he is funny and cute as Bedella’s conflicted son, a sort of anti-Romeo trying to constantly to do the right thing even to his own detriment, and fields a truly exhilarating voice. Alex Thomas-Smith is just beautiful as his love interest May. If I missed the majesty and bruised emotionalism of Arun Blair-Mangat, the role’s originator, I loved the sensitivity and authenticity Thomas-Smith brings. This is a terrific cast.
In short, when the term “a great night out” is bandied about, & Juliet is exactly what people are talking about: a thunderously exciting songbook tethered to a delightful script with a resource of tangible talent that’s almost an embarrassment of riches. I’m already planning my next visit and I hope to see you there.