If you were to attempt to explain the concept of & Juliet to anyone, it would be very easy to make the show sound a bit rubbish. It takes the back catalogues of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Backstreet Boys, Pink, N’ Sync and Ellie Goulding, and fuses them to a story in which Juliet, of Romeo &… fame, doesn’t die, but instead meets some friends, goes to Paris and learns to live the life of a strong, independent woman. See what I mean?
But then you watch & Juliet, 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.
It’s difficult to overstate the success of Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin, whose songs provide the soundtrack. Name any top 10 hit of the past 20 years, and chances are he wrote it. In fact, only Lennon and McCartney have had more number ones. His credits include hits for Adele, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift and Sam Smith – the list goes on and on.
Sure, the first time the cast members stop speaking, pause, and then break into a Britney banger it’s utterly baffling. But soon you’re chasing the next glorious musical high. Every time a character sings the first line of a song you recognise, it brings a little surge of glee, be it I Kissed a Girl, or Since U Been Gone.
David West Read’s book is designed to match the lyrics of Max Martin’s songs, and it makes no apology for that, nor should it. The way it uses Oops!… I Did It Again is one of the best placements of a pre-existing song in all of musical theatre history.
West Read is not well known in the UK. He’s a US-based playwright, and writer for Netflix series Schitt’s Creek. His book is fantastic, a kind of raucous Shakespeare comedy in itself, involving a play-within-a-play, various couples pairing up, even some dumb puns – with a bit of panto thrown in on top.
There’s a framing story in which Cassidy Janson’s Anne Hathaway, amid marriage troubles with Oliver Tompsett’s self-satisfied Will Shakespeare, decides to rewrite the ending of Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the show, they tussle over plot, with Anne constantly trying to give Juliet freedom and agency, and Will retaliating by bringing Romeo back from the dead.
Anne gives Juliet a group of pals. There’s Nurse – a standout performance from Melanie La Barrie, with colossal voice and ample comedy chops, who gets to pair up with an always impressive David Bedella. There’s Juliet’s gender non-conforming BFF May, played sweetly and sassily by Arun Blair-Mangat.
West Read has turned Romeo into the ultimate fuckboi, and Jordan Luke Gage nails this with his smug, preening performance. Tompsett is a brilliantly douchey Shakespeare and Tim Mahendran brings an endearing earnestness to the role of Francois.
Janson has an impish, excited presence and a leading-lady voice. But this is, of course, Juliet’s show. Having covered all three Schuyler sisters in Hamilton, The Stage Debut Award winner Miriam-Teak Lee now gets to shine in her own right – and, bloody hell, does she. Her voice is something to be reckoned with. At one moment, during her performance of Roar, she exudes a pure electric charge.
Everyone has brought their A-game to Luke Sheppard’s production. 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.
Rainbow blasts of colour help create the make-believe Paris where most of the show is set. Behind the fantastical cutouts of Soutra Gilmour’s gaudy set is a wall of gorgeous projections by Andrzej Goulding. 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.
It’s true that & Juliet leans a lot on some key predecessors. Shakespeare-as-patriarchal-bloke? Emilia had a bash at this last year. A farce based on the idea of Shakespeare trying to finish a play? Shakespeare in Love did this more than 20 years ago. GCSE core curricula rewritten to actually include some women? History as pop concert? Six, and Six again.
But the show is more than the sum of its parts (thank God, seeing as one of those parts is Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life). It becomes something new. Nominally set in the past, with all kinds of shapes, sizes, colours and sexualities visible on stage, it feels more like a glorious vision of a Technicolor future. By the end, & Juliet almost resembles a rally. A story of woe? Hell no.