Words: Tim Heap
What happens when you take history’s best-known love story, flip the script, and set it to the back catalogue of one of pop’s biggest hitmakers? & Juliet, that’s what.
Mining the oeuvre of Swedish pop producer Max Martin, with songs made popular by artists including many Attitude faves (Britney, Ariana, Robyn, Katy, Pink and more), the show imagines what would happen to Juliet if she had not killed herself at the end of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers.
How about, instead of ending her life because of some guy she’d met three days before, she picked herself up, dusted herself off and decided her own fate?
Now playing at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre after a successful run in Manchester, & Juliet picks up right at the end of the tale we all know: Juliet, played here with panache by Miriam-Teak Lee, wakes up from her induced coma to find her beloved Romeo dead beside her.
The cast of & Juliet
Cue an excellent rendition of 'Baby One More Time' – Lee’s vocals add a heart-wrenchingly soulful dimension to the seminal pop banger.
From there, we dip in and out of the new narrative, seeing the twists and turns come to life as imagined and written by sparring husband-and-wife duo William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway (played by Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson).
Pushing her husband to write an alternative ending, feisty feminist Anne asks William, “Are you a strong enough man to write a stronger woman?”
From fair Verona, Juliet quickly travels to Paris, to get away from her seemingly-Casanovan late-husband and strict parents, and to find herself.
Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway
She’s accompanied by her faithful Nurse (Melanie La Barrie) and best friend May (Arun Blair-Mangat), whose gender-identity storyline, complete with rendition of Brit's 'I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman' is touching without becoming cheesy.
And the pay-off for their name is brilliant – but that’s all I’ll say on the matter.
The storyline is undoubtedly silly and far-fetched – it’s almost pantomime – but I found myself grinning almost non-stop, especially during scenes with Nurse and her reacquainted lover Lance (David Bedella).
Their 'Teenage Dream'/'Break Free' mash up hits all the right notes, with added slapstick.
Arun Blair-Mangat as May
After finding herself a new potential suitor in Paris, in the form of Tim Mahendran’s sweet, shy Francois – also struggling with parental expectations – trouble comes to town in the form of a not-dead-after-all Romeo, played by Jordan Luke Gage.
He’s dashing but dumb, and Juliet’s had enough of that for a lifetime. Or has she…
Romeo’s unexpected reappearance – thanks to a sly edit from Shakespeare – provides the perfect platform for one of the show's standout moments: an in-your-face-and-get-out-of-mine version of Kelly Clarkson’s break-up anthem 'Since U Been Gone'. Sing it, sister.
Yet for all the sass and yass, there’s tenderness to be found, such as when Nurse delivers a heartfelt take on P!nk’s self-love rallying cry 'Fuckin’ Perfect'.
Jordan Luke Gage as Romeo
It’s worth noting that setting the show to Martin’s back catalogue of hits works better than you might expect.
Whereas an individual artist might be lucky to have enough bona fide hits to pull together into a jukebox musical, they’d be luckier still if they covered a broad enough emotional spectrum to fit naturally into a plot with all the highs, lows and in-betweens a good story needs.
In that respect, the Swede’s 20-plus-year career – which has spawned 22 Billboard No.1s — has all the ingredients for West End success.
Tim Mahendran and Miriam-Teak Lee as Francois and Juliet
& Juliet’s feminist credentials may be somewhat undermined by the fact that its top creative team is male heavy (book by David West Read and directed by Luke Sheppard), but the show succeeds in creating strong, developed female characters who all, in their own ways and on their own terms, find their happy ever after (or happy for now).
Die-hard fans of the original star-crossed lovers might wonder if Shakespeare’s play really needed to be resurrected in this way, but if you’re willing to go along with the silliness and enjoy the performances, this is a highly entertaining show that has its heart in the right place.
& Juliet plays at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 30 May 2020. For tickets, visit here.
Images: Johan Persson