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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

& Juliet review – queer joy and pop delirium as Shakespeare gets a Max Martin makeover

‘Genuinely inclusive’: & Juliet’s Australian production is now showing in Melbourne.
Lorinda May Merrypor leads & Juliet’s Australian production, now showing in Melbourne. Photograph: Daniel Boud

It’s not often that a standing ovation happens – twice – before a show is even over. The first time, it’s to a deliriously silly boyband performance (choreography and all) of the Backstreet Boys’ eponymous and most famous single; the second, a glitter-soaked rendition of Katy Perry’s Roar.

These are ubiquitous songs in the pop music canon, familiar to anyone who’s been anywhere near planet Earth for the last few decades. The musical’s 30-odd songs were all written by one man: Swedish pop powerhouse Max Martin, who’s present in the room at the show’s Australian premiere, on Thursday night in Melbourne. It’s far more songs than would be included in a regular musical, but when the jukebox is this full, why the hell not?

‘It feels a little like a karaoke party’.
Revelling in the excess of a pop stadium show, & Juliet ‘feels a little like a karaoke party’. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Since debuting in Manchester in 2019 (before transferring to the West End), & Juliet has become a favourite in the musical theatre world – and it’s not hard to see why. With a book by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read (fans of the hit series will delight in an Easter egg-style one-liner riffing on Alexis Rose), the show grabs hold of Shakespeare’s play and gives it a #girlboss makeover by asking: what if Juliet lived? The politics are rudimentary, but the humour, high-octane production and, yes, the songs make it irresistible.

The local cast includes familiar faces (Rob Mills as Shakespeare; the wonderful Casey Donovan, who draws a roar from the crowd as soon as she appears, as Juliet’s nurse Angélique) as well as newcomers: seven cast members are making their professional debut. It’s a show that feels genuinely inclusive: many of the cast are Indigenous or people of colour, and many identify outside the gender binary (the program includes pronouns for each member). One character, May (Jesse Dutlow), is non-binary, tenderly exploring these feelings through Britney Spears’ I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.

Though it’s mainstream in every sense, and ostensibly revolves around the ultimate heterosexual love story, there’s a beautiful undercurrent of queer joy throughout this show.

Jesse Dutlow as May.
‘Like giving the inner child a big hug’: Jesse Dutlow as May. Photograph: Daniel Boud

& Juliet carries surprising parallels to a recent Australian production, Virginia Gay’s Cyrano at the MTC. Both are self-referential, building a new story brick by brick in real time for the audience and challenging the archaic nature of their source material. Here, it’s Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (Amy Lehpamer) who asks the questions and demands autonomy for Juliet; in doing so, she also flips the script on the Bard himself, probing into their own troubled relationship and his tortured genius act.

But, really, it’s all about the music – in some ways, the story is a vessel for the songs. It’s a potent reminder of just how prolific, and good, Martin is at this whole pop thing. It feels a little like a karaoke party – audience members (let’s be honest, this one included) are mouthing or straight up singing out loud throughout. Nostalgia is a driving force here, especially for millennials – these songs have soundtracked our lives and it feels like giving the inner child a big hug to hear them sung with such life-affirming joy.

Casey Donovan
Casey Donovan (right) draws a roar from the crowd as soon as she appears as Juliet’s nurse. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Some rearrangements are stunning: Spears’ Baby One More Time is given a cavernous, bass-heavy makeover as the audience meets Lorinda May Merrypor as Juliet for the first time; a seamless mashup of Perry’s Teenage Dream and Ariana Grande’s Break Free reveals incredible chemistry between Donovan and love interest Lance, played with goofy French accent by Hayden Tee. Lehpamer’s performance of Céline Dion’s That’s The Way It Is reveals a serious set of pipes. Others are less so: what begins as a slow cover of Grande’s Problem and builds into a pop spectacle is marred by an inelegant mashup with The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face.

Amy Lehpamer and Rob Mills as Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare.
Amy Lehpamer and Rob Mills as Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. Photograph: Daniel Boud

But the cast is having a blast, as are the writers: one particularly clever moment pokes fun at Justin Timberlake’s pronunciation in ‘NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me, using it for a pivotal plot point. And finally, the gibberish lyrics of the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way make some kind of sense – it’s about a playwright and his wife disagreeing on plot direction! Of course!

This show has the hallmarks of a pop concert: confetti cannons, cast members flying above the stage or rising from the ground, tightly choreographed group dance numbers (it’s a company-style musical through and through), dazzlingly bright lights and colourful sets. It’s got the makings of a teenage bubblegum romcom: montage scenes, interpersonal drama and tender first kisses.

& Juliet doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but nor does it want or try to. This is a show with its tongue firmly in cheek, delighting in its own irreverence and campiness, and asking the audience to as well. It’s fun and uplifting, offering a message that is simplistic but resonant: my loneliness ain’t killing me no more.

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