Theatre Review: & Juliet (Shaftsbury Theatre, London) ★★★★

British theatre is loving a bit of historical revision these days and & Juliet gives us re-written Shakespeare with liberal lashings of scandi-pop brilliance. I loathe jukebox musicals but & Juliet is just fantastic!

What if star-crossed Juliet didn’t take her own life after Romeo died? What if instead, she woke up and got on with her life?  And what if Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, took over the writing chores to give teenage Juliet the story she always wanted to write?

Just as Six reimagined Henry VIII’s wives as a battling girl-group, & Juliet turns Juliet into a 00s pop star, an independent woman determined to not be defined by her first, and only, boyfriend. And what better score than the pop-anthems of a song-writer who defined ‘girl-pop’ for decades – Max Martin? The writer behind some of the biggest hits of Britney Spears, Pink, Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Celine Dion and more (including lots of male pop stars as well like *NSync, Backstreet Boys, Adam Lambert and The Weeknd).

So Juliet wakes up, sees her dead boyfriend, grabs her best friends (including the gender-fluid May) and heads to Paris in search of freedom and love. But the “course of true love never did run smooth” as Shakespeare and Hathaway duel over the character’s fate.

Cassidy Janson (Anne Hathaway), Miriam-Teak Lee (Juliet) & Melanie La Barrie (Nurse). Production photography by Johan Persson. 

Jukebox musicals usually struggle to twist songs to fit a plot, or worse, twist the plot to fit a song lyric. & Juliet has the advantage of dipping into the back catalogue of a prolific songwriter with dozens of hit singles. & Juliet pulls out tracks that make you think “I had no idea Max Martin wrote that”, alongside the big bangers like “Oops! I Did It Again” and “Since You Been Gone”.

The other area most jukebox musicals fail at is, well, everything that isn’t the music. And this is where & Juliet really shows it’s smarts. The script by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read is filled with jokes without losing track of the characters. It manages to be broad and silly, and filled with some excellent misdirections, while still delivering a few emotional punches. Even when they’re bending over backwards to justify a song lyric, it’s done with a wink to the audience. This show is smarter than it needs to be and that’s what makes it work so well!

Jordan Luke Gage as Romeo. Production photography by Johan Persson.

Miriam-Teak Lee’s Juliet is more like a contemporary teen girl – smart and resourceful with a tendency to leap before she looks. And the pipes on this girl! She can belt out the big notes with apparent ease. Cassidy Janson (as Anne Hathaway) pulls off being a hilarious ball of energy while carrying the emotional weight of the show. David Bedella is having the time of his life as Lance, getting to live out his boyband dreams in an overstuffed codpiece. Jordan Luke Gage almost steals the show as the dim-witted, charming and over-entitled Romeo with “a tight body and too many emotions”. Sadly Oliver Tompsett (Shakespeare) was off the night we reviewed.

Arun Blair-Mangat as May. Production photography by Johan Persson.

It’s not all wine and roses though, the character of May is, well, complicated. Singing “Not A Girl (Not Yet A Woman)” feels like it was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek gag, but is performed as a serious, soul-searching ballad. The song lyrics leave it uncertain how the character identifies, but as Anne Hathaway explains to her husband, May’s gender-expression is not really any of their business to debate.

It’s a bright, outstanding show that has more jokes (and more songs) than I could count. It’s silly. It’s wild. It’s ridiculous. And it’s definitely not to be missed! In fact I’ll definitely be going back to see & Juliet again.

& Juliet plays at London’s Shaftsbury Theatre. For more details, including tickets go to the official website.

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