& Juliet Cassidy Janson (Anne Hathaway), Miriam-Teak Lee (Juliet) and Melanie La Barrie (Nurse). Photo: Johan Persson
Max Martin may not be a household name but without a doubt you’ll know loads of the pop songs he’s co-written over the past twenty plus years - the likes of ...Baby One More Time, I Kissed a Girl, Since You Been Gone - and it’s this huge back catalogue that forms the basis of the brilliant & Juliet.
We start at the premiere of superstar writer Will Shakespeare’s latest blockbuster Romeo & Juliet, his wife Anne Hathaway having gotten a babysitter and travelled to London to see it. It is her question of “what if Juliet didn’t kill herself at the end?” that kickstarts a whole new story, written by both Anne and Will, and the premise for the musical. Will doesn’t give in easily and the two battle it out to the lyrics of a Backstreet Boys classic.
Act One focuses on Juliet and her friends travelling 600 miles to start afresh in Paris. We’re introduced to non-binary May battling with issues of gender identity, Juliet’s nurse is fleshed out and given a name (Angelique), and Anne creates the character April so that she can be part of the play too. Upon arrival they attend a ball and a love triangle is formed when Francois du Bois meets both Juliet and May on the same night.
What unravels over two acts is an evening of pure joy, a tale of female empowerment and self love, with in-jokes for the Shakespeare nerds and hilarious shoehorning of songs into the plot. But where this might be a criticism in other musicals, in & Juliet this is just part of the mischief and merriment of the production - as a fan of the songs you can’t help but enjoy how they’ve been made to work. Some songs fit quite naturally into the plot, sometimes hard to imagine they weren’t written especially for the show, whereas with others tongues are very firmly in cheeks. But that just makes it all the more fun.
There’s some brilliant mash ups (a personal favourite was Ariana Grande’s Problem colliding with Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd) and overall Bill Sherman’s reimagining of pop classics into musical numbers works a treat (the comic timing of the lyrics to Since You Been Gone are particularly memorable). Same goes for David West Read’s book cleverly stringing the songs together into a genuinely interesting and funny story, a comedy even Shakespeare would have been proud of.
Although this is very much Juliet’s story, the plot with the most substance to it was the exploration of Will and Anne’s marriage and the similarities to the star crossed lovers’ fateful relationship. Cassidy Janson as Anne steals the show with her witty performance and powerful voice. Similarly, Oliver Tompsett’s Will wonderfully brings us a celebrity in crisis via the strength of powergrab dance moves. Tim Mahendran too was hilarious as Francois.
The performances across the production are brilliant and I’ve no doubt this will be the start of a massive career for Miriam-Teak Lee following her starring role as the titular heroine. The set and costume from Soutra Gilmour and Paloma Young are bold, brash and explosive and work brilliantly for this contemporised historical backdrop.
But the real star of the show is the brilliant music. There’s no point in denying this is a jukebox musical (it literally starts and ends with one stage), but that’s no bad thing when the songs are this good and are made to work in this way. The second act may have felt a little rushed, with Francois’s reconciliation with his father falling victim to what could have been a hugely emotional moment, but when you find yourself smiling from beginning to end, who cares?
As the house lights came up, my first words were “I already want to see it again” and I don’t think I can give it much higher praise than that.
Photo: Johan Persson