& Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre

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Miriam Teak-Lee & the ensemble of & Juliet (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

I’ll admit I wasn’t optimistic about this one. The signs weren’t what you’d call “good”. A jukebox musical? By a prolific songwriter? Who’s written for a number of artists including Celine Dion? With an out-of-town tryout in Manchester? Bat Out Of Hell’s corpse is barely cold.

I needn’t have worried.

Directed by Luke Sheppard, & Juliet is a retelling of the classic Shakespeare play – one in which sparring husband and wife William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway (Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson, gamely gettin’ down with the kids) contrive to improve upon the original play’s downer, vehemently anti-feminist ending. Thus begins a play-within-a-play where Juliet runs away to Paris with her nurse (played by Melanie La Barrie and finally granted the honour of a first name, Angelique), and two best friends (Arun Blair-Mangat and Cassidy Janson, skipping in and out of her own new creation to nudge things in the right direction). Oh and it’s all done as a jukebox musical with the songs of Max Martin (Britney, Katy Perry, Robyn, Jessie J, Backstreet Boys), in a visual mashup of Edwardian and modern styles (think a lot of doublets and high tops – costumes by Paloma Young). If it sounds like it shouldn’t work, that is because it should not work. And yet.

Once in Paris, Juliet seeks out a new life, but finds herself falling into familiar rhythms and entanglements. But in a magnificent end-of-act-one twist that would be cruel to spoil here, a spanner descends into the works and adds a wonderful layer of complication to the plot. The book (David West Read) keeps the tone permanently light with some panto-level gags that keep you laughing long enough to not notice how hard the book is working to seamlessly integrate the songs and lyrics. There are little to none of the groanworthy moments traditionally associated with jukebox musicals here, and the whole show is a wonderful lesson in how a jukebox musical SHOULD work. With almost zero alterations to the lyrics, Read weaves the songs and story together in a way that unearths ingenious laughs from what are sometimes fairly anodyne empowerment-lite pop lyrics.

The songs themselves are an unimpeachable selection that shows why Max Martin’s career has spanned over two decades and 22 Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits. The tracklist reads like a CV of pop genius, because it is.

And then there’s Juliet. In taking on her first leading role, Miriam Teak-Lee delivers a blistering performance of a demanding role. Despite getting a lot of stage time and a wide variety of songs which Teak-Lee nails, the character of Juliet herself ends up a shade underwritten, an avatar for the show’s committedly feminist empowerment message. But Teak-Lee manages to bridge the gap and deliver a powerhouse performance that would dominate the show were it not for the rest of the cast operating at an equally high level.

The show’s strong politics initially made me uncomfortable – not because I disagree with them, but because I thought they would be used as box-ticking exercises to score cheap points. An early rendition of Britney’s I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, sung from the perspective of a character whose gender identity resists definition, is a promising start, but the cynic in me didn’t fully accept its intentions until the same character was given a full story arc in a way that felt neither cheap nor exploitative – a low bar, but one that is still rarely cleared. David West Read’s time spent writing on Schitt’s Creek – a show that movingly humanises all its characters with equal affection, should have been assurance enough. In among the show’s less subtle messages are some quieter understated messages – a love interest character is portrayed by an actor with a body type not often seen on the West End, let alone in a leading role, and it is neither used as a plot point nor a punchline. None of this should feel revolutionary, and yet it is.

& Juliet represents a refinement of the jukebox musical, a clear statement of intent to drag some of theatre’s worst tropes kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and manages to do so while never sacrificing its pop sensibilities. I’d go see it again tomorrow.

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