The songs in this particular jukebox are the work of Swedish writer and producer Max Martin. Martin’s name may be unfamiliar, but the hit singles he's created for pop superstars including Taylor Swift, P!nk, Katie Perry and the Backstreet Boys certainly aren't. Martin has had 22 singles reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100- a record only beaten by Lennon and McCartney. For audiences who grew up in the nineties and noughties, Martin's music is a fun reminder of school discos and perhaps a less fun reminder of teenage heartbreak.
If you're thinking that this all seems unrelated to Shakespeare's tragedy, you're right. Book-writer David West Read had rammed Martin’s hummable tunes into a plot concerning Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway bickering over the ending of Will's new play Romeo and Juliet. Anne ("Yes, I'm called Anne Hathaway- can we just get over it!" she snaps, in one of the play’s many fourth-wall breaks) insists that her husband’s play would be improved if Juliet didn't kill herself at the end. Instead, Anne insists, Juliet should escape Verona for an adventure in Paris. With Six and Emilia!, theme of re-writing Tudor-era narratives from a female perspective is currently experiencing a West End Renaissance (if you rolled your eyes at this pun, you’ll struggle with the heavily-signposted wordplay throughout the script of & Juliet). The girl power theme raises cheers throughout the night, but if you're looking for an in-depth feminist discussion, you'll find more to chew on down the road at 9 To 5.
Our eponymous heroine is played by Miriam-Teak Lee, previously seen on the West End understudying all three Schuyler sisters in Hamilton. Lee is effortlessly cool as Juliet and is clearly having a blast in the role. Her enthusiasm is matched by her vocal and dance skills. Lee brings a new and soulful meaning to Britney's Oops!...I Did It Again and ...Baby One More Time, and her rendition of Roar by Katie Perry is showstopping. Playing Juliet's best friend May, Arun Blair-Mangat is vocally impressive, but has little else to do with the character’s bland characterisation. Witty and wry Anne Hathaway is a more developed character, and Cassidy Janson gives a strong performance in the role, especially when given the chance to sing. As Will, Oliver Tompsett is amusing, although the characterisation relies too heavily on the tired and unoriginal gag of having Shakespeare quote his own plays in conversation.
The show certainly looks great. The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, owes a lot to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, and Paloma Young’s costumes are another highlight. The band and sound quality are excellent, and the Shaftesbury Theatre is a good size venue for a show like this. Most of the fun of the show comes from the amusement of finding out how Martin's songs are crammed into the narrative, and the new interpretations they are given within the context of the plot (you’ll wonder why nobody has ever restructured the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way in the way that Read has here). Read and director Luke Sheppard throw a lot of other ideas at the wall- French nobility, non-binary identity, a romantic sub- plot for Juliet's nurse, multiple moments of characters flying across the stage, and even another surprise Shakespearean resurrection. Not much of this sticks and the overall effect is pretty exhausting.
& Juliet won't go down as West End classic, and it certainly won't be enjoyed by everyone. However, if you don't raise a smile at the unbeatable songs and energetic cast, you'd have to have a heart of the stone. And yes, that is a Shakespeare reference.