Book: David West Read
Music: Max Martin and Friends
Lyrics: Max Martin and Friends
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
What if Juliet had woken up, discovered her beloved Romeo dead, and thought ‘Meh…what the hell…I’m only young and it would be a shame to waste all this”. When Anne Hathaway gets a night away from the kids and turns up at the opening night of her husband’s new play she’s determined that this heroine isn’t going to end up tragic. Taking up the reins, she re-writes the end as a whole new start for Juliet.
It’s a fun, feminist and timely take on Shakespeare, who’s increasingly being gently (and not so gently) chided in the theatre world for his often down-trodden female characters. Once mostly confined to academic writing, the feminist angle has hit the mainstream in shows like the hilarious but hard-hitting Edinburgh Fringe hit Ten Things I Hate About The Taming Of The Shrew, and although there’s not an ounce of heavy literary criticism here, & Juliet certainly has something to say about gender stereotypes, freedom to make your own choices, and living your best life.
Oh yes…and it’s a juke-box musical.
It might not be the obvious choice of story-line to sit alongside a bunch of powerful pop hits, and that turns out to be the secret of its success. The songs – by chart-topping writer Max Martin – are so brilliantly segued into the sharply written storyline that the audience regularly laugh with delight as they recognise Britney Spears, Bon Jovi and Ariana Grande. There’s nothing awkward about the way the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way gives voice to Anne’s frustrations, and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream perfectly fits with Shakespeare’s young lovers. Martin has given Musical Director Dominic Fallacaro freedom to play around with the songs, with additional orchestrations and arrangements, played live by a small band, and the cast belt everything out joyfully.
Given that these are songs everyone knows, made famous by some of the biggest names in pop, there’s much at stake for the main cast. No problems here. At the centre of it all, Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet is a triumph. Straight from training, Miriam-Teak Lee won Best Actress in a Musical at the Stage Debut Awards for On The Town at the Regents Park open Air Theatre and then joined the original London cast of Hamilton. For an actor with such a short CV, she’s an astonishing talent. If you don’t know her name now, you surely will when & Juliet goes into the West End in November.
This is not to say that she dominates. There’s a really strong leading cast – Oliver Tompsett as Shakespeare is a great comic actor as well as a great singer and dancer, Melanie La Barrie as the Nurse brings great soul vocals, and Cassidy Jansen as Anne has the impish sparkle reminiscent of many of Shakespeare’s fictional women. The supporting cast don’t put a foot out of place in the constant high energy dance numbers, tightly choreographed by Jennifer Weber, and they’re all wonderfully dressed by Paloma Young in a mash-up of Elizabethan and contemporary fashion that is a total delight. The show has a suitably over-the-top and occasionally rather magical West End look to it with a crowded, smoothly operated set by Soutra Gilmour and lighting design by Howard Hudson.
There’s a bit of a lull in the second half when everything gets a bit serious and there seems to be a desperate need to funnel everything towards a conclusion. The show generally has so much energy that the ballads here do feel a little flat by comparison, but it’s all back on track soon enough. There’s a bit of a false ending (with premature – if deserved – standing ovation) when the newly single and empowered Juliet, raised above the stage, smashes Katy Perry’s anthem Roar. It’s hard for the cast to top this with the actual finale – but then you can’t help but like Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling when it’s delivered with such unbridled joy.
It would be hard to walk out of this show without a smile on your face. Whether this is your kind of music or not, there’s so much to like, and the glorious Miriam-Teak Lee alone is worth the ticket price.
Runs until Saturday 12 October 2019 | Image: Johan Persson