Romeo and Juliet, is probably one of history’s most famous love stories which (spoiler alert) tragically ends in death. This modern retelling considers what could have happened if Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) was given a life beyond Romeo. She travels to Paris with an entourage consisting of Nurse (Melanie La Barrie) her mother figure, and her best friends Anne (Juliet Cassidy Janson) and May (Arun Blair-Mangat).
Expanding on the universal themes of love and tragedy found in the original story, this rendition puts a modern twist on Juliet who is presented as a fully-formed, independent woman. If this premise seems a bit infantile and simple at first glance, fear not as it is actually a story within a story. These two parallel stories seem a bit cliche in the opening half, but in the second half, this added dimension is used as a way of exploring the relationship between William Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) and Anne Hathaway - yes she is his wife and Juliet’s best friend, keep up! Anne Hathaway, despite being Shakespeare’s wife is almost never mentioned in his work and has never been known historically in her own right. This parallels Juliet’s characterisation, simply as Romeo’s plus one, in the original Veronian story. Anne’s story is explored subtly at first, culminating in a powerful, slightly in your face, scene where she puts her feelings raw for the audience to understand.
What makes this musical stand out, and what will undoubtedly make it a big success, is how every emotional high and low is framed by a modern hit by writer and producer Max Martin. From Ariana Grande’s Break Free, to Britney’s Oops!… I Did It Again, each song fits perfectly in it’s moment while retaining a little of the absurdity. Were Ariana, Britney and Kesha ever meant to meet Shakespeare?
The nurse (Melanie La Barrie) is definitely one of the most loved characters by the audience. The attitude, personality and humour that La Barre brings to the role is perfect for the story.
The musical does make a concerted effort to have a diverse set of characters and May played by Arun Blair-Mangat is presented as the token LGBTQ+. When May bounces onto the scene as the stereotypical gay best friend, you could feel a few eyes roll in the audience. It is of course amazing to have this type of unapologetic representation, but this first impression, playing on classic stereotypes, was disappointing. As the story progresses and May’s narrative is interwoven into the wider plot, more complex, nuanced characteristics are pushed to the forefront. It was not made overtly clear, but after May’s heartfelt rendition of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman by Britney Spears, it seemed that the character was also being presented as a one questioning their own gender identity. A more explicit approach, in the style of May’s original presentation, may have made more of an impact but this was nonetheless a very welcome representation.
A special shoutout has to be made to the set designers and costume designers on this production as they contributed to the killer combination of traditional with the modern. The set was spectacular, bringing together a double rotating stage (move over Les Mis!) which could also become a raised platform. Almost every scene had a different set which would be seamlessly wheeled in; the audience hardly had to use their imagination at all! Together, the set and the costumes combined the fun and glitter of a pre-teen Jojo Siwa fan with a more grungier aesthetic of the same teenager a few years later.
Some people are quick to turn their noses up at those who seek to instil a bit of modern pop fun into the theatre world of by creating these jukebox musicals. However, not only do these new productions draw a wider audience into the theatre but they also tell very important stories with wider representation than more traditional musicals. If you like Shakespeare, Ariana Grande or the Backstreet Boys this is the show is for you!
(The more you know: Jukebox Musical
A film or stage performance which features songs from well known artists. Examples include Mamma Mia, Pitch Perfect as well as the Rocky Horror Picture Show. These types of shows do sometimes have original songs alongside tracks from one or multiple well known artists.)