“I may run and hide when you’re screamin’ my name, alright,” sings a chiselled young William Shakespeare as he rises up from under the stage at the Shaftesbury Theatre. The smoke machine is on full blast. The intro to “Larger Than Life” by the Backstreet Boys blares. The audience screams.
The first step to falling in love with Max Martin’s banger-filled new jukebox musical & Juliet is to accept its outright silliness. This is Romeo and Juliet, if Juliet used the phrase “Yass Queen” and Shakespeare cameoed as a sexy pop icon. The show is a wild ride, and from the first wonderful moment Backstreet Boys booms from the stage, you’re either on the train or you’re not. I advise getting on quickly.
The Shakespearean classic has been rebooted countless times, with various levels of originality. But in this remake, the plot is almost irrelevant. The reason that people have bought tickets, and that social media has been abuzz since the show was first announced, is Martin. The Swedish songwriter behind almost every great pop song since the 1990s, from Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, worked with the billionaire film producer Tim Headington to come up with a show that shoehorns in almost every one of his greatest hits. The result falls somewhere between a Bon Jovi concert and drunken karaoke.
In this version of Romeo and Juliet, written by David West Read, Juliet refuses to die for Romeo. Instead of plunging a dagger into her heart, Juliet (a powerful Miriam-Teak Lee) decides to start a new life, away from the #drama of her parents and the theatrics of men. The show is narrated by Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) and his neglected but ferocious wife Anne Hathaway (a hilarious Cassidy Janson). The play unfolds jaggedly, bounding from one extreme to the next at breakneck speed; darting from resurrections to marriage proposals.
When the plot meets the music, the songs are given delightful and surprising new meanings. Britney’s “Not Yet a Woman” is sung by Juliet’s queer best friend May (Arun Blair-Mangat) to express confusion over their gender identity. While the show occasionally risks overdoing its progressive credentials message by bulldozing in topical talking points, it ultimately adds up to a show that is not for the stiff theatre-goer – in fact, it doesn’t really care much for them at all. “You’re ending is shit,” shouts Hathaway at her husband. She, like the audience, wants an ending she can relate to.
Crucially, & Juliet’s subversions are playfully self-aware: from the modern-Tudor hybrid costumes to its deliberately hammy take on Britney ballads. It wants to be ridiculous and cliché, and to miss that is to miss the point. Much like the art of drag, it is exaggerated, laughing at itself the entire time.
More than anything, this is a musical that speaks to the power of pop to unite a crowd and command a smile. There is sparkle, innuendo and every pop anthem since 1998. You didn’t know you wanted & Juliet, but trust me, you really do.