Tuesday, 10 March 2020

&Juliet @ Shaftesbury Theatre

&Juliet @ Shaftesbury Theatre

If you're going to do a jukebox musical, you might as well use the music of the godfather of pop. Sure, we've had ABBA, Queen, Carole King, Tina Turner and so many others. But now we have...Max Martin.

Ok, so that name may not mean much to everyone. But the artists he's worked with surely will, considering he helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in pop: Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and loads more. Forget ABBA, Martin is Sweden's most important musical export.

The result is a musical where every song is an outright banger. Every. Single. Song.

Its plot is a little weird. As the title suggests, it's based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet - if Juliet hadn't actually died and instead ran away from home with her queer best friend to party, fall in and out of love again and stand alone as a strong independent woman. It's like a teenage fever dream for girls, a distillation of modern pop music, three minutes of melodrama stretched into an entire show. Somehow, it kinda works.

There is a slight whiff of adults trying a little too hard to be cool, of not quite being an authentic teen story. Shakespeare himself (Oliver Tompsett) is on-stage with wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) as they compete to rewrite the story on the fly. It adds another layer of gender politics to the show, but also of adults re-living their youth (as much of the audience will be).

It also ensures the show doesn't take itself too seriously. As with other jukebox musicals, the plot and songs are wrenched around one another lacking any semblance of subtlety, but &Juliet plays into this with excellent comic timing. "I think I did it again," sings Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet, Britney's 'Oops I Did It Again' hilariously encapsulating her rollercoaster love life; later Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone' is used to similar effect. A slowed down version of Ariana Grande's 'Problem' brings new emotion to the lyrics. And Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' is given a comedic overhaul when sung by two adults - Melanie La Barrie and David Bedella as Juliet's Nurse and her love interest Lance respectively.

At times, then, the plot and music merge ingeniously. At others, though, things misfire. That 'Problem' rendition is mashed-up with The Weeknd's 'I Can't Feel My Face' and is sonically messy, though its lyrical intention is clear. Some songs sung by male and female characters are in keys either too high or low for both performers. Most awkward is the show's LGBT subplot that sees best friend and non-binary character May (Arun Blair-Mangat) singing Britney's 'I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman' - it's simply too on the nose. Worse, the character is later revealed as essentially a long-running Justin Timberlake joke and Blair-Mangat struggles bringing the character to life.

Regardless of its flaws, though, &Juliet is an exuberant new musical with an outstanding central performance from Lee as Juliet. She embodies the youthful energy, sass, and strong vocals required to pull off Martin's music. As Anne Hathaway, Janson is surprisingly emotive, while Tompsett's vocals soar as the cocky Shakespeare. The design, too, is a vibrant mix of Shakespearean and modern style, while Jennifer Weber's choreography feels like a music video come to life.

Questions are raised as to the intended audience. Its plot, fuelled by female empowerment, is certainly aimed at teens but the music hits more of a nostalgic nerve for parents. Yet, as with Shakespeare, there's a universality to the show that subverts our expectations of love, gender and sexuality. It truly is a modern love story.


Watch: &Juliet runs at the Shaftesbury Theatre until October 2020.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

Gerald Moon's CORPSE! premiered back in 1983 in the states before coming to London in 1984. Over three decades later and it remains an entertaining farce that feels very much of its time.

The play is set on the eve of Edward VIII's abdication speech in 1936, though its plot is far removed. It sees actor Evelyn Farrant - an eccentric and flamboyant Tom York - plotting to kill his twin brother Rupert - also York, in more poised and sophisticated mode - with the help of bumbling drunk criminal Major Powell (Paul Kemp). What follows is a farcical whodunnit that takes double-crossing to the extreme with its twin brothers conceit - the characters are never quite sure who they're talking to, and neither are we.

There are barely concealed homoerotic undertones to it all. Evelyn epitomises the camp effeminate actor, all charm and faux refinement in his rundown bohemian flat - especially compared with his straight(laced) and rich twin. When he poses as his brother, Evelyn literally recedes into the closet. Perhaps it's all a metaphor for gay revenge, for gay men to take centre stage yet closeting themselves in the process.

More so it's a play about acting, written by an actor, for actors. Evelyn readily quotes Shakespeare - the plot is given away by its allusions to Hamlet - and the script is full of self-deprecating jokes about actors likely to have regular theatre-going audiences guffawing. The knowingness of it all, though, does eventually become tiresome.

This particular production is well realised, with a strong central performance from York that clearly delineates the two brothers. Director Clive Brill includes some clever recurrences and deftly handles York's amusing switches of characters to keep us on our toes. And while Beth Colley's staging initially seems cramped, it's soon revealed to be an ingenious revolve.

It all amounts to a silly but fun play that draws a thin line between old fashioned and nostalgic.


Watch: CORPSE! runs at the Park Theatre until 28th March.

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre

CORPSE! @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Anna Urik

Monday, 2 March 2020

This Queer House @ The Vaults

This Queer House @ The Vaults

There are some great ideas in This Queer House, from the OPIA Collective. As the title suggests, it's about a queer couple navigating the heteronormativity of domestic life - they inherit a new home but the pressures of family tear them apart. It begins in a sort of sitcom style, with amusing lines, canned laughter and short snappy scenes, with knowing self-referential humour. This couple are subversive and break the mould, but they also argue like any other couple and must integrate into their community no matter what their sexuality or gender.

A third character is thrown into the mix too, the actress playing a number of roles including a hyper-masculine builder, a robotic Stepford wife, and even a talking dog. The aim is to personify the heteronormativity the queer couple face, a foil to their paranoia.

Then things get weird. A mid-play interlude takes us to a sort of fantastical dreamworld of a pair of children meeting a witch and it all takes a turn towards the symbolic, the bizarre, the absurd. The couple are haunted by ghosts of the past, but it all gets too surreal, frantic and shouty.

There are simply too many ideas at play here: the fear of living with a partner; the varying levels of normality and queerness; mourning the loss of the past when a trans person transitions. All of these are worthy of focus, but This Queer House is in need of script editing to really give clarity to its clever ideas. Instead, with its denial of heteronormativity, the play is so concerned with what it's not, it forgets what it is.


Watch: This Queer House ran at the Vault Festival from 27th Feb - 1st March.

This Queer House @ The Vaults
Photo: Tara Rooney