Late 90s pop is always my jam so a musical that features it is always going to be a winner. The brilliant & Juliet is so much more besides as well though, don’t miss it at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
“You hear my voice, your hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake the ground”
What if Juliet didn’t die? And what if the writer and producer of some of the most iconic pop music of the last two decades (think Britney, Backstreet Boys, Céline, Katy Perry, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk just to name a few) decided to lend his back catalogue of songs to a new musical dedicated to her? The result is & Juliet, a slice of energetic and hugely entertaining musical theatre that explodes with joy at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
David West Read’s smartly self-aware book employs a metatheatrical twist as we open with William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway having a barney about the ending to his latest play Romeo and Juliet and she persuades him to give her a bash at writing a new one with him. Thus we pick up in Verona where Juliet reclaims ‘…Baby One More Time’ from Darius and declares her intention to flee to Paris with her best gal pals and flirt with some foreign guys. But as William and Anne tinker with their plotting, the fractures in their own relationship come to the fore, causing some major new plot twists.
There’s injokes aplenty. You either know exactly why there’s a character called May or you don’t, the self-referential script works in any number of gags (‘what’s in a name’ is cleverly done), there’s jabs at authorship, and I loved the acknowledgement of the lyrical daftness of many love songs through the wedding vows. Wittiness abounds though: the slide into ‘Oops I Did It Again’ is genius, so too ‘Since U Been Gone’, and Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse is hilarious throughout (though who knew the OG Mrs Phelps knew words like that!).
Martin clearly benefits from having a gigantic back catalogue but there’s something truly impressive about the way that the music has been incorporated here, lyrical synchronicity coming in the most unexpected places (just count the number of different characters who sing meaningfully in ‘Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely’ without a line being changed). Bill Sherman’s arrangements push several songs into surprising new shapes and they all found fantastic under Patrick Hurley’s baton (and so nice to see the band get to take their own bow).
Director Luke Sheppard knows how to stage them too. From the adrenaline shot of the ‘Problem/Can’t Feel My Face’ mash-up with its fierce choreography (Jennifer Weber) to the simplicity of just placing Cassidy Janson downstage to give us so much effing life by ripping through ‘That’s The Way It Is’. Aided by Soutra Gilmour’s glitter-strewn set (so many details to look out for – the numberplate, the bookseller’s cart), Paloma Young’s delightfully brash costumes and Howard Hudson’s lighting which takes you right back to Top of the Pops.
And what a cast. Miriam-Teak Lee’s Juliet graduates effortlessly to leading lady without breaking a sweat, looking deadly cool in her every move and nailing some monster pop songs, supported by Jordan Luke Gage’s deliciously daft partner. Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson banter wonderfully as Will and Anne, David Bedella and Melanie La Barrie pull a Jack and Karen by nearly stealing the show from the kids (their ‘Teenage Dream/Break Free’ is inspired. And through all the glitz, Arun Blair-Mangat and Tim Mahendran cultivate a genuine sense of new romantic beginnings that it is impossible not to root for.
It’s all so joyous, and it never takes itself too seriously (perhaps just a touch less mugging to the audience would be my one note). But for all this, there’s some real intent here too, underscoring all the fun. Putting gender-diverse romance front and centre with no attendant drama. Challenging the myth about it being OK for artists to screw over wives and families in pursuit of their art. Hell, even having a woman of colour headlining a West End show still doesn’t happen often enough for it to pass unremarked.