Music and Lyrics: Max Martin et al.
Book: David West Read
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
A new musical that updates Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the music of Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys doesn’t bode well, and many a reviewer must have travelled to the Shaftesbury Theatre with a heavy heart and a pen full of pithy remarks. However, very quickly even the iciest reviewer’s heart begins to thaw and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the energy of this show. The committed cast ensure that & Juliet is an evening jam-packed with fun.
All the songs in the show have been written by Max Martin, who, after Lennon and McCartney, has had the most number ones in history. In the last 20 years, he has written many hits for the likes of Britney, Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson, and many of them appear in this show such as Oops!…I Did It Again, I Kissed A Girl and Since U Been Gone. He has an impressive catalogue, but can they be shoehorned into a story of female empowerment?
Well, surprisingly they can, and perhaps even more surprisingly they sound perfect as musical theatre songs especially I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman and It’s My Life which seem written for the stage rather than for the radio. With music as catchy as this, it’s down to David West Read to come up with an equally infectious story. And his modern take on Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy is a hoot, and involves some plot twists that even the Bard himself would be proud of.
Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway has travelled to London to see her husband’s new play, but when she finds out that Juliet dies in the end she challenges him to change the ending, and give Juliet a future instead. At first, Will refuses, and so Anne writes parts for him: Juliet lives after Romeo’s death, but when she goes to put flowers on his grave she realises that he had many other lovers who he flattered with his sweet words. As she is now a widow, Juliet’s parents want to send her to a convent, and so, along with her trusty Nurse and a couple of friends, she flees from Verona to Paris.
If the story is only feminist-lite, it’s still very funny and, with some cheesy puns and dodgy French accents, there are hints of pantomime in the proceedings, but it all works very well. It helps, too, that our husband-and-wife narrators are at the top of their game. In a doublet, skinny jeans and hi-top trainers, Oliver Tompsett as Shakespeare is very endearing and funny, while Cassidy Janson as Anne is hilarious caught between primness and adventure, and her voice is one of the best of the cast.
The comedy continues with David Bedella as Lance and his version of Teenage Dream is one of the highlights of the evening. There is good work too from understudy Dillon Scott-Lewis, who with his shorn hair, plays a refreshingly different kind of hero as Francois. While most of the cast go for laughs, the pathos is left to Arun Blair-Mangat who plays Juliet’s non-binary friend May. Of course, it’s heartening to see queer characters on stage, but May seems to have a lot less fun than their friends.
As the title of this musical suggests, this is Juliet’s show and Miriam-Teak Lee does not disappoint bringing a good range of light and dark to her numbers where others would have simply belted them out. She acts well too, and by the end, even if the story now enters the platitudes of Glee, you want to Roar along with her. Never has Juliet’s balcony scene been so uplifting.
With Soutra Gilmour’s busy set and Paloma Young’s striking costumes, there is never a dull moment and Luke Sheppard’s direction while pacey, is never rushed. On paper & Juliet shouldn’t work, but on stage it’s spectacular to Shakespearian proportions.
Runs until May 2020