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Alex Thomas-Smith: 'I was told I was too black, too short, too feminine, too queer – now I'm going to be celebrated for all of this'

The performer will join & Juliet in the West End

Alex Thomas-Smith
© Michael Wharley

Some fresh faces and returning regulars were unveiled today as part of the eagerly anticipated reopening of & Juliet at the Shaftesbury Avenue.

We've covered the new casting here, with Alex Thomas-Smith joining the piece in the role of May.

Chatting to WhatsOnStage ahead of their stage appearance, Thomas-Smith explained: "The director Luke Sheppard and I had had a discussion last year while we were working on Rent – he wanted to know what my thoughts were on & Juliet and the role of May specifically. Then, a few months ago, the production called me go ask if I'd do a take for it, so I said yes, of course – whenever Luke calls I answer!

"I later went in and had an informal conversation with the team about the character of May, how it's been written and how it represents my community. As a non-binary performer, Luke was interested in what needed to be done for me to feel the most comfortable. This was brilliant – we decided we could make changes in certain places that could help not just me, but those who come after me in the role."

They added: "It's so surreal – as a young queer child I'd parade around my house, the street, singing these songs, imagining I was Britney or Katy Perry. But to be seen on stage for all the things I was told would hold me back is nothing short of soul-affirming. When I was training I was told I was too black, too short, too feminine, too queer – and now I'm going to be celebrated for all of this."

"There are very few shows when you have a black female lead – it's all about celebrating diversity, equality, individuality. I think that this is also reflected off-stage. Luke Sheppard and the producer Rebecca were very open to this – in costume fittings and photoshoots – I felt like this was the place for me across the board. When the production required my bio for the programme I asked if we could add my pronouns in there and they said 'yes, of course'. I've never seen pronouns in a West End programme – I know they're doing it in Jagged Little Pill but never seen it here."

& Juliet has only grown in prominence since it had its first performance back in April 2019. Chatting to star Miriam-Teak Lee, who has now won a WhatsOnStage Award, an Olivier Award and a Black British Theatre Award for the role, it's telling just how much the show has come to mean to her: "The fans have been so supportive this whole time – telling us they'd be there when the pandemic was finished. We can't wait to greet them again on the stage. But I also think a whole new audience will come because, after all the restrictions, people will want this uplifting, joyous experience."

Cassidy Janson, who plays Anne and also won an Olivier Award for the role, describes what she's most looking forward to: "I can't wait for "Domino" – such a fun number where the road journey starts – it's very funny and when Anne [Shakespeare's wife Hathaway] really gets to be brave. Then it leads almost straight into "Show Me Love" – the joy by the end of that number is palpable. More than that, I just can't wait to make people laugh."

When did Janson know she was onto a winner with the show? "I've done a few workshops or script readings across my career where the text doesn't translate as easily after six months of rehearsals. But with & Juliet – it's ended up being more than we ever thought it could be. It was a really lovely alchemy of the creative team and the cast they chose, plus the time the piece was originally staged.

"I remember the first show we did in Manchester, we were very nervous. You can never know how good or funny a piece is until you give it to the audience – almost giving it away to them. Suddenly things that weren't funny in rehearsals were hilarious, other bits that were funny to us didn't get a laugh. That's what theatre is – that wonderful discovery."

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How does Lee feel, having seen the show through from its infancy: "There were other songs that came out, scenes that came out. From the workshop stages, what we brought as actors and creatives were spins and offerings. As a collective we'd be able to add our own ideas, and Luke was really open to us trying different things. So it's all about what we can bring to the table."

Thomas-Smith added: "'Whenever Luke calls I'm going to answer. He's just a genius – there are ways that he works and thinks that means we just click and I adore him. We're doing Rent over the summer so in total I'm working with him for nine months." Regarding the changes to the role of May, they added: "It's about making these sorts of changes throughout the entire theatre industry. Non-gender conforming performers have always existed – this isn't a new thing."

The show reopens at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 24 September 2021.

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