Ray Rackham reviews & Juliet, a jukebox musical featuring the music of Max Martin now playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
20 November 2019
What is a girl to do when her self-centred, and self-proclaimed “douche” of a star crossed lover has crossed stars with every other girl in town, before dying on her, leaving only her nurse and two friends for company? Tell her own story of course, or least rely on William Shakespeare and his wife Ann Hathaway to tear up the script and start anew.
&Juliet picks up where Romeo and Juliet left off, with one important difference; Juliet doesn’t die, and by this simplest of plot devices goes on to explore her own agency, womanhood and relationships with men; as the Shakespeares struggle to extend her narrative. That’s right, &Juliet is a gargantuan play within a play, where the characters of the original source (or at least Juliet, her parents and Nurse) are manipulated by a marital battle of wills between Shakespeare (played with astute arrogance by an underused Oliver Tompsett) and the decidedly more creative Hathaway (a pitch-perfect Cassidy Janson who carries much of the heart of the show). Interestingly, the manipulating authors of Juliet’s new story step into roles themselves, in a neat addition of life-imitating-art-imitating-life; Hathaway rather carefully choosing to play one role, while Shakespeare takes on an almost ensemble of comical characters.
Using the songbook of nineties/noughties songsmith Max Martin, &Juliet’s score is a jukebox musical that speaks to an audience who remember the songs the first time around, but unlike other jukebox musicals, many – if not all – of the songs feel as fresh and contemporary today as when they first were sung in the salad days of the Britneys, Backstreets, and Clarksons of the pop world. The orchestrations of these songs feel innovative and contemporary, and indeed Martin’s songs have an innate theatrical flair; however, some come with an almost klaxon like obviousness that the press night audience continued to snigger at their placement well into Act Two. It is Janson who scores the best song of the evening in her version of the Celine Dion classic “That’s The Way It Is”, which floored the audience not only by her incredible performance, but also it’s perfect placement within the narrative. “Since You’ve Been Gone”, “What Do You Want From Me” and “F**kin’ Perfect” (the latter sung by the hilariously scene stealing Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse) also find themselves in narrative and jukebox harmony.
David West Read’s book is undoubtedly clever, and plays very much on this Juliet taking control of her own existence; but it rarely packs a punch, relying more on cod-Shakespearean jollity and some lacklustre humour (a joke about a friend called Gail made at least a few people around this reviewer groan). In many cases, particularly in some of Act Two’s latter scenes, the Shakespeares explain why we should celebrate a story of Juliet finding her own agency and controlling her own life, rather than allowing us as an audience to conclude so. Unfortunately, not every moment works, although it is heartening to see a jukebox musical that is constructed as a musical, with its Act One conflict, perfectly placed 11 o’ clock number, denouement and resolve. It’s a shame it the show ultimately concludes with three separate endings, which is at the very least one too many.
A uniformly excellent company is lead by someone truly special. Miriam-Teak Lee’s Juliet is not only a stand-out performance, but one that will be a career springboard. A gifted comedienne, with just the right amount of grit and fancy, wrapped up in a stunning vocal range, Lee’s Juliet is the kind of person we all would want to know. She is ably supported by Arun Blair-Mangat’s best friend May, whose subplot as an out-but-unhappy gay man was treated with sensitivity and class. David Bedella, playing Juliet’s potential, post-Romeo father in law, chews the scenery and steals the parts of the show not already procured by La Barrie’s Nurse. The chemistry between Badella and La Barrie is electric.
It’s difficult not to like &Juliet as the sum of its parts is pretty impressive. Director Luke Sheppard has assembled the perfect team to create a timeless universe of perfectly choreographed whimsy. It feels punkish, urban and street smart, which is very much down to Soutra Gilmour’s kaleidoscope of a projected design and Paloma Young’s melodramatically modern take on Elizabethan costume; where dancewear rests comfortably alongside tunics and bodices. It feels young, vibrant and infectiously joyous; almost as if someone has dosed the Shaftesbury in neon lights, tight ruffles and given it a shot of sassy adrenaline. At one point a character exclaims “all I’ve ever been is a sexy young man with a tight body and a lot of feeling” which in a way is an allegory of the show itself. It lets itself down, however, when it veers away from acerbic knowingness toward pantomime. Whilst it is not going to change the world, &Juliet will at least make it smile.