You might not have heard the name Max Martin, but you’ll have heard his work. The Swedish songwriter has penned more number one hits than anyone but Lennon and McCartney. Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time – that was him. The Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way – that was him. Katy Perry’s Roar – that was him.
All three hits, and plenty more, have now made their way to the stage in & Juliet, David West Read’s new jukebox musical that re-imagines Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and stuffs it full of songs. Luke Sheppard’s production originated in Manchester in October, and now takes up residence in the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre until March, at least.
Alongside Max Martin chart-toppers from Adele, Sam Smith, Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift is a cast featuring Oliver Tompsett as Shakespeare, Cassidy Janson as his wife Anne Hathaway, Jordan Luke Gage as Romeo, Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet, and Arun Blair-Mangat as her new non-binary pal May.
But will the critics succumb to this sacrilegious, song-stuffed Shakespeare story? Will Martin’s mega-hitting music make its mark on stage? Is this the pop music, Elizabethan tragedy-comedy musical we’ve all been waiting for?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
The concept of & Juliet might sound a little ludicrous – an anarchic jukebox musical in which Anne Hathaway rewrites the ending of her husband’s famous tragedy so that Juliet doesn’t die, but runs away to Paris to party instead, soundtracked throughout by Max Martin anthems.
“But then you watch & Juliet,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★★★), “and it makes you want to hunt down the inventor of the jukebox musical and apologise to them for being a bit sniffy about the form in the past, because if they hadn’t invented the jukebox musical then we wouldn’t have had the privilege of seeing its apotheosis here.”
Bano is one of a few critics entirely on board with the endeavour. Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage ★★★★★) is as well, announcing that & Juliet is “one of the best new musicals in a while” thanks to West Read’s “fleet, fun and well-wrought book” and Martin’s “extensive” catalogue of hits. So, too are Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★), for whom the whole thing is a “wilfully silly, somewhat subversive” hoot, and Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★).
“It’s not subtle and doesn’t make much sense,” Curtis writes, “but who cares when you have glitter cannons, breakdancers and a belting version of Baby One More Time?”
There are those, though, that turn their noses up. Clive Davis (Times ★★) finds the whole concept “annoying”, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★) calls it “essentially glorified panto”, and Claire Allfree (Metro ★★) reckons its “cheesily awful”, with a “vapid feminist premise”, set in the “narcissistic, hashtag discourse that now passes for political polemic”.
Michael Billington (Guardian ★★) concurs, observing: “West Read, who did the book, writes in the programme: ‘It was during this period when my brain wasn’t working properly that I developed the idea for & Juliet.’ I’m not sure he is being ironic.”
Martin’s songs certainly sound good on the radio – you don’t get 22 number one hits without being able to master a track – but do they sound good on stage, in Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro’s new arrangements? And what about Soutra Gilmour’s set? And Sheppard’s direction?
“Everyone has brought their A-game to Luke Sheppard’s production,” writes Bano. “It looks like a Baz Luhrmann film, less Romeo + Juliet than Moulin Rouge, extravagant and completely dazzling. Naturally, for a show so excessive, plenty of use is made of the revolve, plus there’s glitter, confetti and even bubbles filled with smoke that explode into little billowy puffs.”
And, this time around, everyone pretty much agrees. There’s applause for Jennifer Weber’s choreography – it’s got “frantic energy and laser precision” according to Curtis, and has “vigour and discipline” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★) – and for Gilmour’s set, which is “exceptional” and “pastel-perfect” according to Wood.
There’s also particular praise for costume designer Paloma Young. Her costumes are “intricate” and “unapologetically larger-than-life” for Wood, and look “fabulous” for Lukowski. “If Paloma Young’s witty neo-Elizabethan costumes don’t win her an Olivier, it’s basically a war crime,” he asserts.
“The show even manages to do that most elusive thing in West End musicals and get the sound levels right, so that we can hear every word every performer sings, as well as each layer of instrumentation in Bill Sherman’s clever arrangements of such familiar songs,” adds Bano. The whole thing is, he says, “a glorious vision of a Technicolour future”.
Even Billington, begrudgingly, has praise for the production. “If tedium is kept at bay,” he concludes, “it is largely through the noisy energy of Luke Sheppard’s production.”
Lee has covered all three Schuyler sisters in Hamilton recently, but here she gets the chance to own the stage herself, as West Read’s re-imagined Juliet, alongside Gage’s Romeo, Tompsett as Shakespeare, and Janson as Anne Hathaway.
“And, bloody hell, does she,” writes Bano. “Her voice is something to be reckoned with. At one moment, during her performance of Roar, she exudes a pure electric charge.” He’s not alone: “It’s glorious to see Lee, a stunningly talented black performer, reinvent such an iconic role,” writes Sam Marlowe (TheArtsDesk ★★★).
Lee is “a showstopping Juliet, honeyed tones laid over the right mix of swagger and sweetness” according to Stefan Kyriazis (Express ★★★), has “a sizzling presence, incredible vocals and moves to turn her into a force of nature” according to Shenton, and boasts “a voice that can bring down chandeliers” according to Davis.
There’s plenty of praise for the rest of the cast, too. Gage’s Romeo earns the most laughs – he’s “religiously ridiculous”, says Lukowski, while Kyriazis calls him “wonderfully gauche, vain and vacuous” – but Tompsett’s Shakespeare isn’t far off: he’s “brilliantly douchey” for Bano, and “a self-regarding treat” for Lukowski.
Everyone gets an appreciative nod, in fact. “It’s hard to decide where to start among an ensemble cast of such fine vocalists,” remarks Wood. “It is all just a care-free, glorious ride that will have audiences humming tunes all the way home.”
As several reviews point out, you probably know whether you will enjoy & Juliet before you buy a ticket. The entire, outlandish enterprise – a jaunty, jukebox musical poking fun at Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers – will either elicit gleeful giggles or sorrowful sighs. And the write-ups reflect that.
Everyone agrees the cast and creative team are excellent, but it’s the concept that cleaves the critics in two. Some – The Stage, WhatsOnStage, TimeOut and the Evening Standard – find the whole thing raucous, rambunctious fun. Others – the Guardian, Times, Metro – think almost the exact opposite. Ratings range from two stars to five stars. Quelle surprise.