There’s a jukebox on stage playing Max Martin instrumentals, and the speakers are buzzing with life. The stage is colourful and covered with London-specific graffiti, and William Shakespeare (Ivan de Freitas at this performance, having a ball) is the hottest writer on the planet. As this musical starts, he’s letting everyone know about the ending to his new play, Romeo and Juliet, and everyone just feels a bit let down.
Enter Anne Hathaway, who wants to re-write, and we’re into this new world where Juliet, kneeling at her lover’s tomb, stands and walks and gets on with her life. Shoehorning popular songs, even those by the same composer, into a musical is not always a good idea (remember the disaster of Knights of the Rose), but if it is done tongue-in-cheek to some extent, with an element of fun, and with some tightly drawn characters, it can work.
Here, the use of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys hits really blends in with this tale of star-crossed young lovers and this brave new world in which Juliet finds herself. The familiarity means the audience automatically connects with the tunes, and the storyline is strong enough to move this musical out of the “jukebox” category.
Just as the original Romeo had two pals, our Juliet has two, the gender-fluid May and the sparky April (Hathaway inserts herself into her version of this tale). Together with the Nurse, who has secrets hidden in her own past which will be revealed as we watch, they head to – where else? – Paris! This is a high-energy piece of theatre, with songs such as Oops I Did It Again, I Kissed a Girl, and Roar fitting in perfectly to move the plot along.
Miriam Teak-Lee is a real find as Juliet, developing from a scared and grieving teenager to a confident woman unafraid to make her own choices. Her singing is superb, and she dominates her scenes when she is on stage. As May, Arun Blair-Mangat is sassy and touching as the youngster who is exploring both self and sexuality, and Cassidy Janson is fun and frothy as the frustrated Anne and the scatty April.
In Paris, it isn’t all about young love: Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse and David Bedella’s Lance reignite their spark in an amusing couple of vignettes (she’s a tigress, and he’s game for a laugh), and even the bickering Shakespeares start to find some common ground. For Juliet, life is anything but simple, and in Tim Mahendran’s Frankie there’s an element of comic camaderie to contrast with the charmless, childish and petulant Romeo (an effective Jordan Luke Gage) when he finally appears.
I’ve rarely seen a set design as sharply suited to a show as Soutra Gilmour’s, which has a revolve, a rising and falling dias, and lots of other surprises which evoke a variety of different settings. Paloma Young’s costumes are beautiful, from April/Anne’s corset to May’s delicate crown, and Juliet’s array of quick changes. Luke Sheppard directs a large company with flair, and Jennifer Weber’s choreography is ably interpreted. The sound design by Gareth Owen is incredible, with not a note out of place and every song catching the mood perfectly.
I feel that this feel-good musical will have (and should have) a long life in the West End, and it definitely deserves to be celebrated as one of the best musicals to hit London in quite a while. It is flashy and fast-moving, and even has a spoof boy-band, but it finds time for the quiet moments in the Romeo and Juliet story, too, and just a dash of realism. If the ending might not be what everyone is hoping for, as least as Juliet says, I Want It That Way.
Image credits – Johan Persson.