What the fucking fuck was that?
& Juliet, a jukebox musical featuring songs written/produced by Max Martin, a person I have never heard of but who has worked with Britney, Westlife and the Backstreet Boys, should be perfect for me. I love a strong female lead, I love 90s pop, & I love ampersands.
But it requires so much buy-in to its nonsensical universe that I’m not sure I am ready to commit to it.
The usual notes:
- STANDARD REVIEW DISCLAIMER: I can’t act. I can’t sing. All my comments are strictly as a person who has seen other shows, and shouldn’t in any way be construed as me claiming to know what I am talking about or that I could do better.
- Post-Research Additions (PRAs) will be in italics but also any time I mention an actor’s name you can be sure as shit I googled it.
- Spoilers: this is entirely spoilers. Pretty hefty ones, and the post is entirely about the show (no more general ramble) so give it a miss if you want to see the show without knowing plot details.
- No particular content warnings except perhaps that at one point I talk out of my arse about gender. I am trying to be sensitive and it is not your job to school me but if you see an error, please do point it out. If a straight cis woman trying to comment on a gender non-conforming character isn’t going to work for you, don’t read. And please tell me to stay in my lane.
Here we go!
The first thing I noticed in & Juliet was the costumes. Then the set. And then – when not a word had been spoken or sung – I really began to worry what was about to happen.
I don’t know about costume design, but I know that someone had fun with these ones. I don’t tend to notice or comment on costumes unless they are pointedly minimalist or excessively extravagant. They were… Jacobean, 90s, 80s, Emerald-city, scrappy, punky, fashion, would-be-post-apocalyptic-if-everyone-wasn’t-so-darn-chipper monstrosities. It’s a criticism from me but there could be all sorts of thoughts behind them that I can’t appreciate.
So – where were we? We were in England. It said so on the back of the stage. And we would be in Verona (naturally) and then Paris, each easily signposted. But… when were we? There was a 50s(?) jukebox onstage and some opening breakdancing, then on walks Mr Shakespeare.
& Juliet delights in its anachronisms. The costumes themselves intentionally make no sense, and this carries on throughout the production. This is a world with selfies and retro cameras, with suits of armour and boybands, the threat of being sent to a nunnery combined with female empowerment in a nightclub, and a 600 mile journey seeming insurmountable until a horse/cycle-drawn carriage appears to carry our heroes with their…vibrantly patterned rucksacks.
In Paris, for example, we are treated to the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, a Metro sign, the Shakespeare and Co book shop (particularly troubling in a play where the premise is that Shakespeare is still writing) and the padlock-laden Pont des Arts.
As a recovering francophile, surely I enjoy this maniac homage to the Frenchest of French cities?
Well… I think I came to. But it was a cautious enjoyment, the nervous appreciation of an awkward first date where you can’t tell whether the guy is quirky in a fun way that’s perfect for you, or whether you want to hot foot it out of there as soon as the bill is paid and stick to well-lit roads.
A rare zero cry show. What does this mean? Am I suddenly a stable human being, or is this an unmoving show?
Cast. Casting? The players! My thoughts on the people acting, and the choices by them and of them.
For a West End musical, I found some of the performances a little stilted. For example, there were occasional pauses where there should have been interruptions, it wasn’t as slick as I was expecting.
Anne Hathaway grew on me – while she did occasionally veer into that musical theatre trap of seeming a bit cbeebies at times, by intermission I was a fan and she belted out a number early doors in Act 2.
There was a very distracting presence in the swing. A man who, among others, played Juliet’s father and a sneering French bouncer (more of that later). I couldn’t place him, and he kept drawing my eye. Great dancing, acting, all that jazz. The only thing I could think he might be from was the comedy group Police Cops and that just didn’t seem possible. (PRA: it turns out his name is Christopher Parkinson and, from the cast summaries on the show website, I don’t know him from anywhere. WHO IS THIS MAN?)
Shakespeare was played with fitting bravado by some bloke who I also couldn’t place. Was he from some slightly newer version of McFly? Eastenders five years ago? There were a couple of slightly more ballroom choreography parts with the Shakespeares for no goddamn reason, does this mean he was on Strictly so they’ve shoe-horned that in? (PRA: based on that reasoning, I came to the conclusion that the man was that there Tom Chambers, but the site says it is Oliver Tompsett who I don’t think I’ve seen before. Who casted this and how do they keep doing this?)
May was played expertly by a nice man bearing a striking resemblance to the one I saw playing Jamie when I saw it a few months B.B. (Before Blog) (PRA: on googling there appears to be no crossover. This mistake is particularly painful. His name is Arun-Blair Mangat and he is gawwwwwjus.)
Juliet herself, who is (according to the website) still played by Miriam Teak-Lee (who I watched absolutely smash Angelica Schuyler and had been keen to see in this different but not dissimilar role, was replaced by (I think from the site, albeit not listed as an understudy) Grace Mouat, who also grew on me through the show with increasingly impressive vocals. She also looks a lot like a former colleague of mine. Just so you know.
As for Juliet’s love (or not) interests: I loved Tim Mahendran as Francois. This goes back to my old “I hate to point it out because we should be beyond pointing it out but until that point let’s celebrate it” spiel (of which much more later) but the fact that he’s not your standard toned love interest is fantastic. He’s hardly plus-size, but there is something so comforting in having a normal-looking person being a handsome, kind, likeable love interest. On the other side of the coin, Romeo (Jordan Luke Gage) is perfectly cast – the chirpy, punchable face (lots of this is in the hair and the acting, I’ve nothing against the guy) of a modern male, teen celebrity. From the moment he made his main entrance he had the air of a Youtube star, the kind I would see crop up on panel shows and feel old for resenting. (PRA: it seems JLG was also in Bat Out of Hell – whether when I saw it or not, I don’t know, but oh my Christ do I have a lot to say about that.)
OK, so here’s where we really get into it.
On paper, this is for me. My experience of jukebox musicals (I’m not sure whether this qualifies – it is all one writer rather than all one performer like Mamma Mia or Bat – but that’s what I’m going with and if they didn’t want that they shouldn’t have put a fucking jukebox as a prop in the first and last scenes SHOULD THEY?) has been hit and miss. There are a lot of traps that you can fall into when the songs you have to fit in are ready-made, and inevitably my enjoyment will depend on whether I knew/liked the songs already.
With Mamma Mia, it’s the sweet spot – songs I know and like, some I didn’t know but others do, and shoehorned in with no apology to create a “romp”, a “fun show”, a “fans of Abba will love this” experience.
With Bat Out Of Hell, well – I knew one song and maybe two further halves. But even if I’d known them all, nothing could have prepared me for the no-holds-barred batshit (no pun intended, trust me if it was I would say) spectacular that unfolded before me. A giant prop motorbike, a post-apocalyptic landscape that was never explained, a villain who TORTURES TEENS and then is magically redeemed at the end to reunited with his wife, a couple of mysterious references to the “chemical wars” – I emerged blinking into Soho unsure what I had witnessed, not regretting it, but sure as shit not about to recommend it.
& Juliet falls somewhere between these. The songs I was promised, I got, and they were songs I loved. Until about six songs in. With horror, I realised that the artist tying these songs together was far more prolific than I had thoguand we suddenly descended into (gulp) “modern songs.” It started innocuously enough with something I recognised as Katy Perry and/or Taylor Swift but led on to songs that I definitely did not know. And when knowledge of the songs is what was giving me most enjoyment in the first half, it was a worrying turn. The point in the “Songs from School’ club night when the DJ decides they’ve done enough and starts to creep into the 2010s.
One song (well, it turned out to be two, mashed up into a duet between Nurse (more later) and… Lance? Leon? More on him too) was wonderfully performed, but I spent the whole time wondering where I knew it from. This is not the point of the jukebox musical. The jukebox joy is in the “OH MY GOD IT’S THIS,” the squeal of recognition on a night out, the “that’s my jam” at a 90s party. For me, the songs veered from that zenith of knowledge to the nadir of recognition – “oh god, I’ve heard this in shops.”
Take, for example, those mashed up songs. One was gratingly familiar but without my usual 90s/00s thrill of “Right, let me mouth to you every single word and embellishment and harmony to show I know it by heart, and you thank your lucky stars I can’t actually sing”. But where was it from? I recognised the motif, I felt like it was used in a repetitive way – maybe it is on the cricket before and after ad breaks? After all, don’t most people know Snow Patrol’s Spitting Games from golf score cards in our youth? Anyone? Bueller…?
Then, as I was walking back to Waterloo (whoop-ah, oh yeah yeah) it transformed in my head. Is it from Black Mirror, Russian Doll? It’s used in a scary dream world, it is disjointed, I associate it with a lack of control. WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT SONG? Meanwhile, the plot has moved on and the performance was all but missed. You see the problem? (is this, I’m dreaming away…)
(PRA: turns out the mystery song is “Break Free” by Ariana Grande. See what I mean? MODERN. The woman is younger than me! I need songs by people who I see clickbait links about saying I won’t believe how they look now. I shall continue to meditate on where the fuck I know it from. It’s the bit that goes “this is, the part where I bla bla de bla bla”. WHAT IS IT? WHAT? Further research has revealed that other “modern” songs I didn’t know were released between 2009 and 2014…)
[Update (28/02/20): Break Free is used in The Good Place in the nightmarish giraffe/shrimp/zig zag clothing scene. Allow me some smugness at recognising Ariana as the soundtrack to a scary dream world. I feel so relieved.]
And then & Juliet suffers from problems at the other end of the scale. The songs that I knew, I knew so well that it was (favourite word alert) jarring to hear them done otherwise. Even a song that is on the “modern but known” level (Roar by… Katy Perry?) had an arrangement I wasn’t a fan of, but it started from, well, the start. The leap in my heart hearing the opening strains of a Britney or Backstreet Boys classic was dampened by the unexpected changes.
I know I sound like an old fogey complaining that everything now is covers. I know I am being a small-c conservative asshat and moaning that they’re changing things from my childhood, but… jarring! It’s jarring as fuck! Merrily singing along (in my head, don’t worry) to suddenly hear a different flourish or have “can’t” with a long “a” in Larger Than Life (the opener) or an unexpected (and I think affected) cockney(?) twang in “I Want It That…Why?” was like running full pelt down a familiar path only to miss a step and have your stomach jump into your throat while you wait to see if everything is about to come crashing down.
There are other jukebox musical pitfalls that & Juliet sidesteps admirably, though. There is a special circle of hell for the writers of such artworks who are so desperate to shoehorn in a song that they signal it from the earliest possible opportunity with a nod and a wink.
The worst example, but perhaps the most forgivable due to its necessity, is to name characters after songs (I’m looking at you Across The Universe, at which the audience I was in gave a collective groan when a character introduced herself – “I’m Prudence”). However, & Juliet flies deftly under the radar here. By intermission, this trick had only been employed once, in the final number and not in a way that made me cringe. Francois DuBois, a name I was be sure could not be used for such evils, had been called Frankie by Juliet. Lo and behold, in It’s My Life, Shakespeare points at him for “like Frankie said I did it my way.”
You know what? WELL FUCKING DONE.
It didn’t end there. Mr DuBois was used again when the family boyband, or BoisBand, reformed for Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). Even more satisfying was when May’s name, which had seemed shoehorned but only for the purposes of a discussion of gender (more later), turned out to also be perfectly primed for that immortal line, “It’s gonna be me” which is, was and has always been pronounced “may.” Chapeau, creators of & Juliet.
Another trap avoided was having your audience, from the beginning of each scene, trying to work out which song it was leading up to. Usually I suppose this is a symptom of creating your plot around the songs you want to include rather than having a strong story which songs slot into. & Juliet probably gets an easier ride too from having a wider pool of songs to choose from so the audience cannot anticipate so well. We all know which Abba songs we recognise, but how many songs do you know that you can identify as being written/produced by Max Martin? (I’m still going to have a tooth-grind at the amount of Grande though.)
The sprawling nature of Martin’s work did lead to some conjecture though. They had some Taylor Swift… so surely Love Story, a song addressing Romeo, will feature? Think again. Surely Mr Martin has been working even longer than I realise and thus Dire Straits will kick in at some point with Romeo and Juliet? No dice.
I wonder what it was like for hardcore Meatloaf fans watching Bat Out of Hell? Were they confused, having been keen to get invested in the plot? Or was it more that they didn’t give a shit what was shoved in around it, as long as their songs were there? Which brings us to…
Plot and… production in general – I need to make these snappier, how can I make these snappier? By knowing what I’m talking about? Pass.
Just like when I attend club nights playing 90s bangers and load up on sugary alcohol, I have a lot to say.
From the opening, I was nervous. It’s a big project to write the most famous writer rewriting one of the most famous plays. The tension grew as Shakespeare was introduced with bravado reminiscent of a Horrible Histories revision guide, and then went about explaining the plot of Romeo and Juliet with all the charisma of an overenthusiastic, recently qualified English teacher.
The show eased into it, the transitions and links between scene scenes and writing scenes became more palatable. But in aiming for such a tricky concept, I think the show falls short of the promised premise. Here are my main thoughts.
Let’s talk about May.
YES. THANK YOU.
May is a character whose gender is a subject of comment from their inception. I thought perhaps a trans woman, but in articles I’ve read May is described as gender non-conforming. I will stick with that and please forgive (and absolutely correct) any slips.
I loved having this character in a mainstream performance. Martin Crimp’s Cyrano (which I loved and may write about later) had a little nod of the head to its modernity by talking in the abstract about the fluidity of gender identity, and of course Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has transferred the increased awareness of drag (thank you, your holiness RuPaul) to the West End, but I had yet to see a gender non-conforming named character, with a plot. Not just that, but it was a key plot point without it being a Play About Gender. I would love a play about gender, it’s a great way to convey these important things which I remain ignorant about, but the fact that it was a not front and centre, but acknowledged and still important story felt like a big step in the normalisation of queer identities. I’d be particularly interested in your thoughts on this.
I still can’t decide whether I loved or hated the use of Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman and I Kissed A Girl in relation to May. Were they great, ignoring/commenting on their gender? Or was it a bit too much of a nod and a wink?
One final point – which I suppose is derived from my thinking May was a trans woman rather than gender non-conforming. I was confused by May’s inclusion in the boy band when until that point I was sure they had used female pronouns. It seemed almost that work of establishing May as (I thought) female identifying was undone in one fell swoop there. But it was a necessary device to get all the love interests on stage I guess, and hey it led to a great musical number. And it makes more sense now I have read that May is gender non-conforming rather than female. I guess this is just more cis confusion on my part. Again, thoughts welcomed.
We had a return of the sassy black woman trope which I incompetently tried to address in my Waitress review, with the Shakespearean Nurse. However, joyfully, this character was given a more extensive personality, a history, and a storyline of her own which overtook her initial interjections about Juliet’s love life. She was played brilliantly by Melanie La Barrie, with a voice which at moments was reminiscent (to me…) of Tina Turner in its tone. Her love interest, Lance (David Bedella) plays off her really well and the comedy of character means that Nurse isn’t reduced to purely comedy – there are times where she is playing straight against him. I really liked them together.
ASIDE: WHY ARE ONLY SOME OF THE FRENCH CHARACTERS JAMBONNING IT UP WITH COMEDY FRENCH ACCENTS? BOUNCER? LANCE?
Plot-wise, at intermission I thought I knew where this was going. Juliet and Frankie would end it, he would be united with May, and she would go on to be independent (rejecting Romeo), Anne and Shakin’ Stevens would either reconcile or break up and I couldn’t give a shit, and Lance and Nurse would be together.
Well, to paraphrase a song from an artist who inspired a baffling musical: three out of four ain’t bad.
I thought I had the full house but, after what you think is the final number, bloody Juliet decides to give it another go (in a totally chill, no pressure way, yeah?) with Romeo, widely acknowledged to be a “douche” (50 year old hat back on: really? We’re saying that?).
Yes, yes, I’m peak cynic, and yes, I know that feminism doesn’t mean not being with a man and yes, I acknowledge that something approximating love does exist and am grateful that this show ditches the notion of fate BUT: why do all the characters end up with/remain with partners at the end of the show? That’s not satisfying. I have come a long way in easing up on the cynicism – I no longer get grumpy if all the characters end up happy – but can’t at least one be happy alone? Contrast Waitress, which goes a little further on that, albeit shoving in a child to fulfil the woman.
Other brief notes:
- White middle-aged woman repeatedly saying yaaaaas, but in a way that was meant to be cringey. Do we give it a pass?
- MANIPULATIVE SHIT OF THE SHOW AWARD (I might have to retain this and retroactively grant it to Ogie in Waitress): Romeo saying “If you can look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me, I’ll go.” FUCK YOU, MATE. Sometimes people still feel love but want to end a relationship. Everything she had said until that point was about ending the relationship and you decide to add another performative ultimatum in the hope you can guilt her out of it or take advantage of the fact she has doubts? GET TO FUCK. Juliet plays it well and I think – I *think* – in light of her response we aren’t meant to find Romeo’s demand romantic, but it’s a fine fucking line.
- Both this and Waitress had novel “turn off your phone” messages. In Waitress, a prerecorded little ditty and here, chalkboards being held up (and for & Juliet, any anachronism is of course irrelevant). It’s nice to see these creative ways but I would rather people just STOP BEING DICKS and we wouldn’t need these messages at all.
- I guess some people aren’t dicks but just forget. Fine. I take it back.
- Update to aside: they do address “doing accents” but I still don’t get it. Do it or don’t.
- Some enjoyable updates in terms of Juliet’s age, the portrayal of gender, women and marriage by Big Will, grumbles about historical sexism, corsets and the like. And these knowing nudges were less irritating than I tend to find them (think Stonehenge in Ice Age (2?) – “modern architecture, it’ll never last” – THE JOKE IS THAT WE KNOW IT DID. That is a trite example, being from a film for kids, but it is annoyingly pervasive and really gets my back up.)
- I got really distracted trying to work out if the writer scenes were in some kind of rhyme scheme or not. There were occasional couplets and I thought it was a clever nod to old Shake-o’s penchant for pentameter, but it didn’t seem to track throughout. There was some good use of well-known passages though, for example the repurposing of the lark/nightingale banter between Nurse and Lance. One such nod I could not forgive, however, was the cringe-inducing “Herefore art I, Romeo”. Sure, it as said by a character who was played as a dunce but (and I now announce my campaign slogan for my run for office) CAN WE STOP PERPETUATING THE MYTH THAT WHEREFORE MEANS WHERE?
Who is this for?
This is what I struggled with.
It wasn’t quite for the large group of schoolboys in front of me who spent intermission saying they didn’t understand.
It wasn’t people my age – well, maybe it was but it was for people my age who listened to Radio 1 for longer than I did. Which is fair.
Is it for an educational matinee, or a boozy Friday evening for people who wish they still had the energy for a 90s club night (I don’t know who that could possibly refer to…)?
There were some world-weary comments about marriage and kids, which would please an older audience, but why would they be going to watch music that goes back to the mid-90s if that? Presumably bringing kids? But they won’t get it either.
Perhaps it is a strength of the show that I can’t tell who it’s “for”. But would I recommend it?
Maybe. I’d have to know you. The only people I can say I’d definitely recommend it to are secondary school teachers who want an English Lit or Drama trip.
And therein I find the audience. It is older adults, parents. With a smattering of secondary school kids. Because this is a show that will flourish in secondary school end-of-year shows country-wide. It’s fun, it is familiar, it might need censoring (the boys in front, all 30ish of them, looked at each other aghast – and I couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not – when the F-bomb dropped), it’s an update to a classic that shows your new head of Drama is both with it and respects the classics. It has characters that will make children more comfortable with gender and sexuality. It weaves in occasional “proper” Shakespeare to keep the crusties happy and toes the line of modernity enough to feel relevant.
The suitability for a school show is in no small part down to some of the flaws I perceived in the show. It was slick, clearly expensive, professional, sure. But some choices (e.g. both times the word glitter is said in lyrics, glitter is thrown into the air) are so terrifyingly reminiscent of something I would consider the height of sophistication in 2004 (at the age of 12) that I can only conclude that this show is meant to be performed by teens.
And if it is, best of all, whoever is in charge of set and costume can do whatever the fuck they want.