Review: & Juliet (Shaftesbury Theatre)
What happens when you take a Swedish music maker, a Canadian book writer and a shed load of West End talent and mash them all up into one experience? The result is one of the best new musicals in a while and then some.
Landing with a blast of steam cannons and air-punching glory in London after an initial run in Manchester, & Juliet achieves something few jukebox shows manage to do – balance out well-known cheesy pop tunes with a consistently fun story and top-tier West End production values.
The plot is surprisingly fresh – it's the 16th century (sort of, the era is all very vague) and Anne Hathaway, coming to London for the premiere of her husband William Shakespeare's new play, discovers that the tragedy's plot ends with more of a bum note than she'd hoped. "Why do you never write a happy marriage in any of your plays?" she states, and, with unrestrained aplomb, decides to retool her spouse's ending – gone are knives and suicide – Juliet is now off to Paris to make something of herself.
On paper, it all sounds far less convincing than it is in practice, but what stops the show from becoming a bawdy panto experience is David West Read's fleet, fun and well-wrought book. It's no surprise that the man behind the likes of Schitt's Creek has a stream of cracking one-liners under his belt, and while revelling in their own anachronisms ("There'll never be another Anne Hathaway", Shakespeare earnestly tells his wife) Read manages to plot relatable and touching character moments throughout.
It also helps that Max Martin, with hits by Britney, Jessie J, Ariana Grande and more to his name, has one of the most extensive back catalogues of anyone out there. Compared to most jukebox musicals, where numbers are strong-armed in and awkwardly sit alongside the script, West Read and his team have the luxury of picking and choosing whatever tunes they want (it would probably be possible to make an entire other musical out of songs they didn't select). From the moment Hathaway and Shakespeare start having a battle of wits to the lyrics of "I Want It That Way", you know you're in safe hands.
It's hard to decide where to start among an ensemble cast of such fine vocalists – Cassidy Janson's steely and chipper Hathaway, Oliver Tompsett's tight-jean sporting, boy-band loving Shakespeare or Jordan Luke Gage's floppy-haired flop of a Romeo, who has a ridiculously bombastic entrance at the end of act one. Melanie La Barrie provides comedic gusto as Juliet's Nurse, delivering one of the most crowd-pleasing monologues out there in act two as she begins her own turbulent love affair with French nobleman Lance (the always charismatic David Bedella).
There's also a star-making turn from Arun Blair-Mangat as Juliet's best friend May (written into the story by Anne) while Tim Mahendran has a fine time playing the virginal as Juliet's new fling Francois. But what of the Miriam-Teak Lee's titular heroine? Lee's performance isn't really like any Juliet that's ever been seen before, injecting all the fire and attitude required to make her a crowd-pleasing favourite, coupled with powerhouse vocals more than ready to wow.
Director Luke Sheppard runs a tight ship, avoiding what could be a sweetly, oversaturated experience. It is helped significantly by Jennifer Weber's fluid, rapid choreography, as well as Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro's fantastic arrangements, transplanting all of Martin's tunes to the stage while retaining their unquenchable feel-good factor. There are some excellent mash-up numbers along the way (particularly "Teenage Dream / Break Free"), and enough silky smooth solos to leave room to breathe in between the mammoth dance epics – particularly when Lee starts swinging off an ornate chandelier. The production design ends up premium where it could have been kitschy – from Soutra Gilmour's exceptional, pastel-perfect set (stylised down to every faux beer bottle) to Paloma Young's intricate, unapologetically larger-than-life costumes.
It is all just a care-free, glorious ride that will have audiences humming tunes the entire ride home. You won't find many better nights out in the West End – if music be the food of love, then & Juliet serves up an all-you-can-eat buffet of the highest standard.