BWW Review: & JULIET, Shaftesbury Theatre
Have you ever dreamed of seeing Juliet wrest control of her destiny from William Shakespeare, aided by a liberated Anne Hathaway, all while belting out stone-cold Nineties and Noughties pop bangers? Well, you're in luck! This jukebox musical take on the Bard is pure sugar rush - and with enough groan-worthy puns and panto pleasure to make it a raucously fun Christmas outing.David West Read (of Schitt's Creek) had the mad-genius idea of pairing Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers and their big feelings with the back catalogue of almighty Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin - who's gifted hits to the likes of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, P!nk, The Weeknd, Ariana Grande...the list goes on.
So, when Juliet wakes up in the tomb, she grieves over Romeo while crooning "...Baby One More Time". But far from heralding the end, this is just the beginning of her story. For Anne Hathaway has sorted a babysitter and come down to London to see - and then start tinkering with - her husband's latest play.
Instead of suicide, Juliet chooses a new life: running away to Paris with her friends May and April (Anne joining in), and her trusty nurse. There, she meets Francois, whose father is pressuring him to marry - or else join the army. But Will Shakespeare can't stay on the sidelines for long, and we soon get a battle of the authors, and the sexes.
Like its musical mash-up, & Juliet nods to several others: a dash of Emilia's feminist reclamation, Shakespeare in Love's winking self-referentiality, Moulin Rouge's gleeful, colour-drenched, anachronistic Paris, and in particular SIX's girl-power herstory concert vibe (in fact, fabulous former queen Grace Mouat is in the ensemble here). Safe to say if you love SIX, this will be your new obsession.
Luke Sheppard's impressively slick production finds smart 21st-century ways to frame its characters, like Will rising up on a platform, accompanied by copious dry ice and brandishing a mic-like quill, every inch the arrogant pop star. In the first of many brilliantly witty covers, "I Want It That Way" becomes the moaning retort of a writer rejecting edits.
The show also teasingly points out Shakespearean absurdities - such as the fact that Romeo and Juliet's great love story only lasted four days. It wisely ages up Juliet from 14 to her twenties, and opens up new story angles for the supporting characters: the nurse revisits an old flame, while gender non-conforming May anchors a touching romance.
There's occasionally too much self-congratulation about its wokeness - we don't need to actually hear Juliet say "own my choices", and in fact the second half entangles her in more boy drama, rather than just following through on her independent journey. But compare this dynamic company - which puts women and performers of colour centre stage, and gives its older and queer supporting characters equally great material - to many other West End musicals, and that self-congratulation is understandable.
The plotting is also nimbler than most jukebox musicals, which wrench lesser-known tracks onto an unwilling biographical hook. Instead, every number here is gold, and there are some genuinely inspired lead-ins (greeted with delighted audience murmurs of recognition) - particularly for "Oops!...I Did It Again" and "I Kissed A Girl". "Teenage Dream" gets a fresh reading when given to the nurse and her lover, as does "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman", sung by an identity-exploring May.
There's a massively entertaining mash-up of "Problem" and "Can't Feel My Face" - which could easily have come from Girls Vs Boys: Elizabethan Love Week on The X Factor. (Yes, Simon Cowell was in attendance on press night.) And the whole audience was waving along to an irresistible boyband rendition of "Everybody".
Oliver Tompsett is a thoroughly convincing boyband leader, and hilarious throughout as a swaggering, vain geezer-like Shakespeare. He spars wonderfully with Cassidy Janson's quick-witted, animated Anne - and Janson gets a storming ballad worthy of her vocal talents.
Jordan Luke Gage's philandering Ken doll of a Romeo plays as Will's libido writ large, while Melanie La Barrie and David Bedella also produce great comic turns (the latter's French accent is one for the ages), while effectively selling their characters' rekindling. Tim Mahendran is instantly lovably as the yearning Francois, and his connection with May - beautifully played by Arun Blair-Mangat - gives this knowingly giddy piece some emotional grounding.
But show belongs to Miriam-Teak Lee - an actress long deserving of this major leading lady role. She closes the gap between the wide-eyed Juliet we know and a sharper version who questions her options, demands more from a relationship, and develops the power and sass to swing from a chandelier or match the fireworks around her with vocal fireworks of her own.
Jennifer Weber keeps the energetic ensemble grooving with her music video-esque moves, Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro's creative arrangements (bonus Tudor harpsichord) are well handled by the band, and Paloma Young's super-cool deconstructed period costumes pair ruffs, corsets and doublets with trainers and leather jackets. There's also eye-popping, fever-dream sets from Soutra Gilmour, Andrzej Goulding's vivid projections, and stadium-style lighting from Howard Hudson.
Safe to say this won't be for everyone, but & Juliet has an absolutely sure handle on its tone and what it's doing here. As well as hitting that nostalgic sweet spot, it's also fresh, inviting and - featuring literal balloons and confetti - just a great time. The best party in town.
Photo credit: Johan Persson