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.