I went to see this in January and found it a bombastic, breezy blast of a show.
& Juliet is a jukebox musical featuring the music of Max Martin – who wasn’t a name I knew,* but I certainly knew many of his greatest hits. And the story they had chosen to set them to was a sort-of what-if-Shakespeare-wrote-a-sequel-to-Romeo-and-Juliet. Honestly the best way to describe it is as the bastard child of Mamma Mia and Something Rotten. Which should in no way be taken as an insult – I love both of those plays very much indeed and Shakespeare was clearly fond of bastards as he gives them so many of his best lines.
The plot was… Hmm… Well, it definitely involves Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway** writing themselves into the further adventures of Juliet after Anne decides it’s hugely unfair that Juliet dies in Romeo and Juliet and its possibly even more hugely unfair Anne’s been stuck in Stratford with the kids, and Shakespeare decides that Anne’s possibly not that good at play-writing or possibly having too much fun pretending to run off to Paris with Juliet, her nurse, and her friend May.***
And in the next level down from that – well, Juliet runs off to Paris with her nurse, and her friends April and May.**** They meet a lad called Francois and his father called Lance, and between them manage to fall in and out of love and have the kind of adventures that, written in summary, would not seem hugely out of place in one of Shakespeare’s more outlandish plays.***** And all of the action happens to the catchier pop songs of the last twenty years or so.
Which is, let’s face it, always a bit weird, but impressively it never felt like the story had been written just to shoehorn in a particular song. And some of the musical moments were sheer genius, like Juliet’s Oops I did It Again when she accidentally got engaged the day after meeting a boy again, Shakespeare and Anne’s combative I Want It That Way. The love stories built in complexity and in depth (in my opinion, Shakespeare definitively proved himself the better playwright when he brought Romeo back from the dead. Not a sentence I ever thought I’d write, but none-the-less true), the characters were engaging, the whole thing was a breezy blast.
It was also anachronistic as hell, which mostly added to the fun. The set gave us a Paris of boulevards rather than medieval delights. The look on Anne’s face when she realised that Juliet’s stated age was hugely inappropriate for going clubbing. And the costumes, which progressed in a wonderful slide from vaguely Elizabethan to just damn cool, with a special shout-out to Romeo’s embroidered biker jacket and Juliet’ puffball skirt.******
Miriam-Teak Lee sings – both literally and figuratively – as Juliet, bursting out of any cage you try to put her in. Cassidy Janson and Oliver Tompsett sparked off each other marvellously as Anne and Shakespeare – believable marriage tension believably resolved. Tim Mahendran’s nervous and shy Francois was a great contrast for Jordan Luke Cage’s Romeo, oozing bad-boy cool. But for me the show was absolutely stolen by David Bedella’s OTT Lance, hamming up the French accent, the improbable lovers’ meeting, and delivering an absolutely knock-out rendition of Teenage Dream. There aren’t words to do it justice.
I have only one note of caution – which is not to see this too soon after the seeing The Watsons.******* For a play where the premise is that Juliet deserves better, it’s a little sad that she becomes a tool/weapon of both Will and Anne as they fight over their marriage. While the happy ending they give her is at least the freedom of a new beginning, she’s never given the agency to write the ending she wants. For all that she’s stronger, and you’re gonna hear her roar, it’s going to be in someone else’s words.
* Admittedly I am a musical ignoramus.
** In London to see the premiere of Will’s latest play and have a break from the kids – look, if this is your stumbling block you are not going to like the show one bit.
*** Who is explicitly not given precise gender, because Shakespeare had cross-dressing girls in his plays and therefore can’t complain if Anne decides to be very twenty-first century woke. Yes that was the actual, on-stage reasoning. Although possibly without the actual phrase “twenty-first century woke”.
**** Shakespeare may have had a point about Anne’s play-writing skills.
***** Like Cymbeline. Or The Winter’s Tale. Or Vortigern and Rowena.
****** The French characters were still mainly in blue, though, because this is a law apparently more unalterable than that of the Medes and the Persians.
******* But totally, absolutely, definitely see them both.