The big budget spectacular is lavish and extravagant – but is failed by its lack of heart.
Shaftesbury Theatre, London, until May 30
Even down to the trendy ampersand in the title, & Juliet appears to have been created not by lyricists and composers, but advertising men and focus groups. It’s great of course that it takes such robust lines on issues such as feminism, gay rights and racial equality, but it does feel like its creators simply saw a lot of boxes and cynically ticked them.
I might add I wouldn’t have such a problem with that if only it had a single great big original hummable number, but it simply offers a few tepid renditions of old favourites like Baby One More Time and It’s Gonna Be Me. Even one really good joke in the script would have done me, but in this respect, too, it disappoints. The words are banal and humourless.
To the extent that there’s a plot, it is about Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) giving Romeo and Juliet a rewrite at the behest of his wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson), so that neither of the principals die at the end of the tragedy.
In the show-within-a-show, Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) realises that Romeo (Jordan Luke Gage) was actually an appalling old bed-hopper and she breaks up with him and marries instead Francois (Tim Mahendran), who is actually a lot more taken with May (Arun Blair-Mangat) who is transitioning into a woman.
The inevitable complications that ensue are handled with all the sensitivity of a Carry On film, and, while there’s one standout performance – David Bedella as Francois’ uncomprehending father – it’s so forgettable I’m struggling even the morning after to remember anything at all about it.
An irritating conceit of the show, too, is that it’s somehow snooty and fuddy-duddy to take an interest in Shakespeare, and his work – if not, of course, rewritten and set to pop music – is necessarily as dry as dust. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to imagine a playwright more populist than Shakespeare.
He lives on in our affections precisely because he understands the human condition so well and he found the words to talk about it that turned out to be universal and timeless.
Still, & Juliet is undoubtedly a big budget spectacular with lavish sets, extravagant special effects and a humongously big cast, and if you like to see a lot of money being spaffed utterly pointlessly on the West End stage, then this may be for you.
It’s a musical that yearns to be liked, and tries so hard to be cool, but ultimately it fails because, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, it lacks a heart. It clearly has, too, a massive sense of entitlement that it’s going to be a hit with a run that extends to the spring, but personally I hope it’ll be here today and gone tomorrow.
I would say to David West Read, who has taken it upon himself to radically rewrite Shakespeare, that I now feel I have got to know Shakespeare pretty well and think of him as a friend. And, Mr West Read, you are no William Shakespeare.