Shakespeare’s most iconic tale gets a modern feminist revamp
Starring Miriam-Teak Lee, Cassidy Janson, Oliver Tompsett, David Bedella, Arun Blair-Mangat, Jordan Luke Gage, Melanie La Barrie and Tim Mahendran
I shall, for once, keep it brief. Simply put, & Juliet is phenomenal. I don’t think that I have ever received such an electric buzz from a musical. The closest that I can describe to it are the chills that I received at Hamilton or Heathers at The Other Palace. The atmosphere that accompanied the show was galvanising.
& Juliet asks the question of what would happen if Juliet hadn’t killed herself after Romeo had taken his own life – a question that every schoolkid in their GCSE years asked to a rather irritated-looking English teacher. Everybody in their right mind knows that somebody doesn’t kill themselves purely because a boy they’ve been seeing for a couple of days drinks poison, and this is what Shakespeare’s wife, Anne (Cassidy Janson) suggests to him (Oliver Tompsett), as he proudly announces the ending to Romeo and Juliet in front of his assembled sycophants. Taking the quill, Anne proposes that Romeo’s suicide is merely the beginning of Juliet’s story, and from here we see Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee), newly emboldened and confident after Romeo’s demise sullies her name, flee to Paris to live her life to the fullest, along with best friend May (Arun Blair-Mangat), Nurse (Melanie La Barrie) and April (who is actually Anne, who has inserted herself into Juliet’s story). While also compellingly telling Juliet’s story, the musical also explores the battle of wits between Anne and her husband as they tussle over the narrative, throwing plot twists at each other like dinner plates in an argument. The storyline, while seeming slightly bizarre, is brilliantly and magically played and it was refreshing to see a musical in which the storyline was so thoroughly unpredictable.
What makes & Juliet exceptional are three things: the performances, the representation and the music – though of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, as that doesn’t even take into account the lighting, sound design, set design or the costuming (which I promise I will mention. Other than here).
The entire cast are ridiculously talented. Miriam-Teak Lee heads the cast as Juliet, and storms the stage with her power-house vocals with every number that she delivers – and there are a lot. You really gain the sense that she feels every word that she is singing, and it is in these musical numbers that she truly shines. Anne Hathaway is beautifully realised by Cassidy Janson, who – in my eyes – is the actual star of this show. The story that is portrayed on stage is more Anne Hathaway’s plight of being married to Shakespeare than it is actually about Juliet, and she commands this role brilliantly. Her dry and no-nonsense delivery left the audience in stitches, while at other moments kicking the wind out through heartbreaking dialogue and a rousing Act 2 solo (“That’s The Way It Is”). Arun Blair-Mangat is stunning as Juliet’s best friend, May, and manages to deftly portray May at her brashiest and also at her most vulnerable. The stripped back and simple “I’m Not A Girl (Not Yet a Woman)” is a standout moment in the whole show. Melanie La Barrie and David Bedella are hilarious in their roles as Nurse and Lance, with their rendition of “Teenage Dream/Break Free” a high-energy, hilarious romp.
The praise is, of course, not purely reserved for the women. Tim Mahendran is a wonderfully bumbling and insecure Francois, who serves as both Juliet and May’s love interest, a character who shares a lot of similarities with Juliet by longing to be in control of his own destiny. Oliver Tompsett makes Shakespeare his own and Jordan Luke Gage is simply the most perfect buffoon in Romeo.
& Juliet also does a sterling job in tackling representation, as it is full to the brim of feminist empowerment. Not just in Juliet taking control of her own narrative, but also through Anne and her journey with Shakespeare as well. Juliet is attempting to break free of the shackles of her parents and her previous relationships, while everybody around her tries to influence her into doing what they want. Juliet is eager to make the decisions for herself, and Anne is eager for this as well. While slightly heavy-handed at times with its presentation, but it’s an enjoyable depiction nonetheless. On top of this, we also get wonderful discussion about gender identity through the character of May, with the beautifully honest “I’m Not a Girl (Not Yet a Woman)” coming into play, yet again. We also see Francois struggle with his sexual identity as well. Finally, the cast are beautifully diverse, and the fact that Juliet is portrayed by a BAME performer is absolutely brilliant.
Finally, & Juliet has some of the most recognisable songs featured within it. A jukebox musical, featuring the work of songwriter and producer Max Martin, reinterprets famous pop songs such as “Baby One More Time” and “Roar” and contextualises them. You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of these transitions are tangential or forced, but this isn’t Mamma Mia. There’s no “Fernando?” boomed across a set by Cher, which is possibly the most random song introduction in the history of musicals – by the way – but rather every song is played seriously, despite the familiarity to the audience. It invites the viewer to reinterpret and really listen to the lyrics of songs that they thought they knew. It is really a testament to book writer David West Read that the songs fit in so seamlessly with the plot.
All of this, and that doesn’t even mention all of the other hard work at play to make & Juliet such a resounding success. The choreography by Jennifer Weber is slick and energetic, while the set is simply stunning. The floor design is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s stages, while an LED screen above the stage is lit with projects that serve to enhance the performances. The huge lettering of & Juliet is also a visual treat, and for this we have Soutra Gilmour to thank. Additionally, all of the cast look gorgeous in modern versions of Shakespearean clothes courtesy of costume designer Paloma Young. The lighting helps to add to the concert vibe, which is designed by Howard Hudson, while the flawless sound is the work of Gareth Owen.
If I were to levy any criticism against & Juliet – of which I have very little, hence its formidably high score, it would be that Juliet doesn’t really feel fully fleshed out as a character. You can see other characters having a journey throughout the show: Anne and May both have bigger story arcs than Juliet has, which seems strange for a show that not only bears her name, but also credits the actress with top billing. Arguably, Juliet experiences little emotional growth throughout the musical. Her desire at the beginning is the same as at the end: she wants control and she doesn’t care what anybody else says. She expresses this wish early in Act 1 with “Domino”, before fleeing her family for Paris. She is still proclaiming that she doesn’t care what anybody else thinks in finale number “Roar”. When you have a protagonist being so strident for the entire musical, it somewhat undercuts her development and progression. For me, at least.
Ultimately, & Juliet just makes you feel good. It is rare in current times to be able to lose yourself completely within a musical, but the overwhelming emotion that audiences experienced throughout the show was that of infectious joy. Go and see it. You will not be disappointed. I genuinely hope that this production runs for years.
& Juliet is running at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The soundtrack will be released November 22nd.