Martini Rating: 🍸🍸🍸🍸🍸
We predict a hit!
Starting it’s ‘out of town’ try out before transferring to London’s West End, &Juliet opened with a bang at Manchester’s historic Opera House last night. This incredibly witty and immensely comedic musical, bolsters a soundtrack of 30 pop anthems, a ridiculously talented cast and a design to die for. Making it a must see event in either Manchester or London.
The show is set up on the premise that William Shakespeare, (Oliver Tompsett) has just finished writing Romeo & Juliet, but his wife Anne Hathaway, (Cassidy Janson) has other ideas. What ensues is a femme-positive and wonderfully inclusive musical remix that smashes all gender stereotypes as Anne sets about writing the show she wants to see. Which just so turns out to be a meaningful comedy and not the dark, dark tragedy Shakespeare is so keen to write. &Juliet thus beautifully re-imagines this Shakespearean classic, making an interesting commentary on Shakespeare and Anne’s marriage, as the pair begin to spar over what is to happen in the play and draw various comparisons between themselves and the star-crossed lovers. The show also intriguingly gives a nod to Shakespeare as an actor-writer with a share-hold in an acting company by having the couple write themselves into their new play, the opening showing the pair surrounded by a company of players. Throughout, Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson have fantastically fiery chemistry that offers up a lot of opportunity for both comedy and depth. Tompsett’s William Shakespeare is remarkably flamboyant, mischievous and narcissistic, his delivery of the ‘world’s greatest playwright’ who wants it his way, is a perfect mansplaining and hard-headed counterpart to Cassidy Janson’s Anne Hathaway, who is incredibly witty, smart and independent. Anne is a bold, self-assured, rationalising character who just wants to see a women given a choice for once, rather than the passive character’s her husband has previously written – who are often told what to do. Janson delivers Anne effervescently with great clarity and witticism. Both Janson and Tompsett ultimately provide powerful vocals and comedically rich performances as they fumble about the stage together, their character’s playfully manipulating the story.
The mise en scène narrative that the pair devise, therefore starts with Juliet having awoken to find Romeo dead and instead of ending it all, she chooses to go on living. We get to follow her as she, (along with friends), seeks something more, tries to escape the will of her parents and almost makes the same mistakes. It is, like any good Shakespeare, subversive and full of twists and turns with various sub-plots, love stories and disguises. Thus, David West Read’s writing is a triumph, he has managed to reimagine and create complex characters that are exceedingly relatable and fresh. His book is a clever, vibrant and raucous ode to the bard with a modern twist that can symbiotically be seen as a meaningful parody. Juliet reclaiming her story asserts itself as the perfect girl-power take-back for this generation. Though at times the piece dances on the edge of pantomime, the level of comedy is groundbreaking and the storyline, inspired. As far as the music is concerned, as aforementioned the piece contains 30 pop classics, but &Juliet is no jukebox musical. Max Martin, (Dominic Fallacaro and Bill Sherman)’s choices and arrangements are strong, unique and impassioned, they interweave throughout the story effortlessly, propelling on the plot and artfully emoting. Whilst enraptured, it is easy to forget that all of these popular songs exist outside of this show, the incited delivery and obvious fresh arrangements ensure that they feel as if they were written for it. All of which is staged by the invigorating direction of Luke Sheppard, which certifies that the comedy and vibrancy of Read’s book packs-a-punch and is well-sustained and balanced, whilst allowing room for tender and understated moments to also trickle through, enacting to be as powerful and sincere as those of high intensity, or of visible teem. Additionally, Jennifer Weber’s choreography accents the arrangements flawlessly, her work is energetic, bold and connective. Allowing for beautifully ensemble-led work and aesthetically pleasing moments of awe.
The overall approach, thus fuses a new fiction, the historical past and today’s socio-political climate, the intent being to create a retrospective Shakespearean comedy for our times, which looks back to look forward, with the objective of promoting both female empowerment and the dismantling of the patriarchy. So whilst the music, choreography and dialogue are modern, (a critical choice to the ensure work’s relevance to its audience), the setting is still the 1590s. A necessity to allow Shakespeare and Anne to appear as characters and ringmasters, using fact and artistic licence to allow the audience look at Shakespeare critically, (as a potentially blinkered man who probably wrote without considering a women’s perspective). Not only does it show how far we’ve come towards gender equality since the time of Shakespeare, it dictates just how far we have to go, with many women internationally still in Juliet’s position, fighting for the freedom to take back their own story. Thus, this fusion is intricately shown in the representative costuming and design. Bright and modern coloured doublets, hose, corsets and tunics combine with baseball jackets, headphones, SnapBacks and sunglasses. Whilst hydrolic lifts, a revolve, confetti, coloured washes of lighting, projections and various modern set pieces – either lowered from the flies or carried in by the ensemble, combine with other design elements that do much to nod towards the playhouses of Shakespeare’s day, (in particular the Globe, or the modern reconstruction of it). For example, the projections often appear like ‘the Heavens’ painted onto the false ceiling of the Globe’s stage, whilst two colonnades flown down from the flies look very much like those that also reside on the stage there and the white wreath of flowers propped up centre-stage at Romeo’s funeral looks similar to the modern Globe’s circular logo, which represents the reconstructed theatre building. Furthermore, the walls around the edges of the stage are shown to be falling into disrepair and a balcony, like the one from which Juliet was wooed by Romeo looms centre stage, this is a gritty indication towards the ‘new fiction’. Juliet will/is tearing down her story and reclaiming it. Shown in her rousing number Roar as she finally takes control and subsequently rises in a new balcony, the railings including some padlocks similar to love-locks left at Juliet’s balcony in Verona, denoting Juliet as a female hero to look up to, as so many do when they pilgrimage to Verona to leave her letters. Therefore the design by Soutra Gilmour (Set), Andrzej Goulding (Video & Projection), Paloma Young (Costume) and Howard Hudson (Lighting) is beautifully representative, it’s modern flavour is a necessity to make the narrative ultimately relatable, whilst the historic allows us to look back at Shakespeare contrarily and for the use of Shakespeare and Anne as a vehicle for the narrative. Regarding Young’s work there are a few other enigmatic design elements that are worth mentioning. Throughout, Janson and Tompsett wield a quill in their hand dependent on who’s character is writing the narrative at that point, when Juliet finally takes back her story and ascends on the balcony, she is revealed to be wearing a doublet and hose, the top half of which is an intricate embellished golden quill, she literally wears the trousers and is the playwright of her own destiny here. The piece also does a lot to break gender stereotypes, Romeo’s initial costume is mainly pink, accented by a flowery pink backpack, the costume Juliet wears opposite him is, in contrast, a blue trouser suit. This seems like a pretty basic statement on the whole ‘pink for girls’ and ‘blue for boys’ gender stuff by swapping them over, however there is a delightful subtly in the fact that this moment can be compared to May (Juliet’s best friend’s)’s initial purple costume. As the gender-ambiguous character, there is something so tempered and pure in the signifier of them wearing a costume colour that is a mixture of the two colours the male and female Romeo and Juliet wear. The character of May, not only adds an air of inclusivity, they are also a great nod to Shakespeare himself who often toyed with subverting gender in his work, though of course, not in the same way. Arun Blair-Mangat plays May with a certain maturity and sincerity, though the character is somewhat naive, Blair-Mangat also manages to capture the uncertainty the character has in them-self and the rawness of the pain May has evidently experienced. He also has a particularly rich and unique voice. However, it does also feel like May was slightly underwritten, they disappear for a large proportion of Act 2 and their exact trajectory is partially unclear. May struggling with which toilet to go to followed by their rendition of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman suggests the character is in the process of transitioning to be a woman, yet May later joins a boy-band. Would a girl in transition realistically agree to this? Therefore it is easier to try and understand May as simply gender-fluid, as aforementioned in the show, is it really any of our business which, if any gender they ascribe to?
Finally onto the rest of the individual performances. Looking into the credits of the entire cast, it is plain to see that they are pretty much all veterans when it comes to big musicals, something that is mind-blaringly obvious in the deliveries, as every single cast members can quite simply be regarded as sensational. Leading the company as Juliet, is the powerhouse that is Miriam-Teak Lee. Her voice is out of this world, with impeccable control and an immense range she battles from huge belting song to huge belting song, she will hence force be known as the riff queen. Her delivery is edgy, sharp-witted and enviably confident, she makes Juliet the Herculean hero that every girl should and will want to be, a self-assured, fiesty, independent woman that Shakespeare could never write. Whilst opposite her, Jordan Luke Gage’s vein, pouty, love-rat Romeo is a hilarious counterpart, Gage also displaying his wondrous vocal tonality. Tim Mahendran’s Francois, the self-effacing son of french nobility, like May has a great sense of naivety about him. Mehendran’s performance, like Blair-Mangat’s, has a purity and sincerity to it, the pair displaying infinite chemistry with one another, sharing in several well-crafted tender moments. However, the true award for on-stage chemistry goes to David Badella, (Lance – Francois’ Father) and Melanie La Barrie, (Juliet’s Nurse). The pair are intoxicating together, La Barrie, with her sardonic wit and enviable comedic timing and Badella, with his charm and silky voice. Their deliveries of the rekindled lovers are definitely a highlight! Whilst the ensemble of players surrounding them are strong, proving themselves to be multifaceted performers and a tight-knit collective, successfully moving set pieces, hitting the choreography hard and adding wondrous vocal depth, they do feel somewhat under-utilised. Particularly as they are often left loitering at the sides. Despite this many of them did manage to continuously pull focus, particularly Grace Mouat, Jocasta Almgill, Kirstie Skivington, Antoine Murray-Straughan and Kerri Norville.
To conclude, we have a revitalised hero on our hands and her name is Juliet. This female-positive show has it all, from the writing to the design to the delivery, the execution of it provides an inspirational, witty musical for our times, filled to the brim with relevance and passion not to mention its abundance of pop songs. Romeo Who? &Juliet runs in Manchester until Saturday 12th October and then on to London. Click here to book now for Manchester and here for London.
Juliet- Miriam-Teak Lee
Shakespeare – Oliver Tompsett
Anne Hathaway – Cassidy Janson
Lance – David Badella
May – Arun Blair Mangat
Romeo – Jordan Luke Gage
Nurse – Melanie La Barrie
Francois – Tim Mahendran
Company of Players – Jocasta Almgill, Josh Baker, Ivan De Freitas, Rhian Duncan, Danielle Fiamanya, Kieran Lai, Nathan Lorainey-Dineen, Jaye Marshall, Grace Mouat, Antoine Murray-Straughan, Billy Nevers, Kerri Norville, Christopher Parkinson, Dillon Scott-Lewis, Kirstie Skivington, Alex Tranter and Sophie Usher.
Music and Lyrics – Max Martin & Friends
Book – David West Read
Director – Luke Sheppard
Choreographer – Jennifer Weber
Set Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer – Howard Hudson
Costume Designer – Paloma Young
Sound Designer – Gareth Owen
Video & Projection Designer – Andrzej Goulding
Wig Designer – Linda McKnight
Musical Director, Additional Orchestrations & Arrangements – Dominic Fallacaro
Music Supervisor, Orchestrator & Arranger – Bill Sherman
Associate Director – Anna Fox
Associate Choreographer – Kendra Horsburgh
Casting Director – Stuart Burg CDG