Those with a working knowledge of Shakespeare, an appetite for feminist revisions and enthusiasm for the likes of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys will be ecstatic. The rest will steer clear. But it would be a shame to shun this outrageously uplifting show, which won 6 WHATSONSTAGE awards and has been nominated for 9 Oliviers.
Soundtracked by hits from Swedish songwriter Max Martin, & Juliet is a glitzy, girl-powered alternative take on Romeo and Juliet. It is stuffed with songs you’ll want to sing along to, from ...Baby One More Time and I Kissed a Girl to I Can’t Stop The Feeling.
The show could be a gratuitous vehicle for number-one singles, but the songs are used with wit, warmth and surprising wokeness. And if it wasn’t for the precision and talent of the cast, the covers could feel a bit X Factor. But the flashy staging and lively plot fill this musical with fun.
We begin on the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, where William Shakespeare (a charismatic Oliver Tompsett) is being challenged by his wife over the imminent double-suicide ending. Cassidy Jensen is charming as a live-wire Anne Hathaway, who makes it her mission to liberate Juliet from tragedy.
& Juliet: Cassidy Janson (Anne Hathaway), Miriam-Teak Lee (Juliet) and Melanie La Barrie (Nurse)
Writer David West Read, who’s best known for Netflix comedy Schitt’s Creek, merges silly comedy and Shakespearean tropes in a story that takes us from fair Verona to Parisian parties. Candy-coloured sets, neon lights, glitter and fireworks create a dreamy music video setting, as costumes take the Hamilton aesthetic of modern-mixed-with-ruffs-and-corsets and makes it bright and sparkly.
The play-within-a-play sees Juliet, played superbly by rising star Miriam-Teak Lee, run away with her nurse (a show-stealingly funny Melanie La Barrie) and two friends.
Meta-theatre, gender-bending, mistaken identity and the occasional rhyming couplet slot into a tale of self-discovery and empowerment. But along with the fist-pumping positivity and ribald comedy, this show has the power to be profound – most strikingly when best friend May (Arun Blair-Mangat) meditates on gender alienation in a surprising, spine-tingling rendition of Britney Spears' I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.
As Juliet’s love life gets increasingly complicated, we flit back and forth between Shakespeare and Hathaway, who grapple to take control of the narrative and seal her fate. Sure, it's cheesier than a wheel of Brie and not the most nuanced exploration of female empowerment, but it's still immensely enjoyable.
As a millennial who listened to most of Max Martin's hits on a CD Walkman, this particular theatre critic is admittedly biased, and is the exact target audience for & Juliet. But there were enough grey heads bopping in the theatre and enough spontaneous standing ovations to suggest that this show is a riot whether or not you know your N*SYNC from your Jessie J.
It's not trying to compare to Shakespeare – we're certainly not short of serious revivals of Romeo and Juliet – instead this show is an irreverent reminder that you can change it up, and try something different, take yourself less seriously.
|What||& Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre review|
|Where||Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8DP | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Tottenham Court Road (underground)|
24 Sep 21 – 12 Feb 22, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here to book now|