It is in fair Melbourne that we lay our scene for & Juliet, a pop-fuelled retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy that celebrates girl power, LGBTQIA+ pride, autonomy and love in all of its shapes and forms. This is Shakespeare yassified.
Billed as the greatest-ever love story remixed, & Juliet is a jukebox musical that asks: what if Juliet’s tragic ending was really just her beginning? “What if Juliet didn’t kill herself?” Anne Hathaway (played by the enthralling Amy Lehpamer) posits to her husband William Shakespeare (Rob Mills). “She’s only ever had one boyfriend, and frankly, the ending’s shit.”
Luckily for Melburnians, the new revision of the classic tale has made its long-awaited Australian debut, where the opening night of & Juliet saw a red-carpet full of glitz and glamour descend on the landmark Regent Theatre. Featuring music from Swedish songwriting powerhouse Max Martin and based on Emmy-winning writer David West Read’s book of the same name, & Juliet has stormed London’s West End, where it won three Olivier Awards, and now it’s here for a limited season in Melbourne’s East End.
The tale traces Juliet (Lorinda May Merrypor), who discovers at Romeo’s funeral just how much balcony-wooing her ex-husband had been doing on the sly. Together with her nurse Angélique (played by the wondrously affable Casey Donovan), Hathaway (who writes herself into the story) and best friend May (Jesse Dutlow), Juliet escapes Verona for the city of love, Paris.
The gang celebrate their newfound freedom at a renaissance ball, where Juliet meets new love interest François (a mainstage debut for Yashith Fernando), and Shakespeare and Anne begin to wrestle over the quill and the course of Juliet’s destiny. I won’t spoil the rest, but some star-crossed lovers get caught in a bit of a tangle.
& Juliet could easily pass for a pop pantomime with its set of anthemic songs, and you can expect to hear earworms by Ke$ha, Pink, Taylor Swift, Backstreet Boys and Katy Perry. All were written by Martin – one of pop’s true Shakespeares – and they’re the beating heart of this jubilant production. Whether it’s Will’s performance of 'I Want It That Way' when quibbling with Anne over the direction of the story or Juliet’s apologetic 'Since U Been Gone', his lyrics fit the narrative like a glitter-flecked glove.
The balladry is heightened by high-octane choreographic numbers by Jennifer Weber against a backdrop that pops with kaleidoscopic colour. Set designer Soutra Gilmour has the walls brimming with everything from graffiti love hearts and scribbled-on padlocks to 3D lettering and tattoo-sleeve-like maps. Continuing on this rollicking confluence of past and present, costume designer Paloma Young masterminds a hybrid wardrobe that pairs flat-boned corsets with chunky trainers and Doc Martens.
& Juliet is the sort of inherently meta production that takes the mickey out of itself – and its questionable accents – before any critics can. Certain numbers like Angélique and Lance’s (Hayden Tee) performance of ‘Teenage Dream’ and the De Boys’ cringeworthy take on ‘Backstreet’s Back’ has everyone in stitches.
While the Zillenial slang and ‘yaas’ references are no doubt lost on certain brackets of the audience, what most ages will agree on is that Merrypor’s vocals as Juliet are faultless – her impassioned rendition of Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ to the burst of confetti cannons sent tremors through the spines of theatregoers on opening night.
At the heart of this production is a narrative of inclusivity and diversity that drags a 16th-century text into the 21st. It tackles the sexism and tropes of Shakespeare’s oeuvre with a light-hearted wit, and its brilliant line-up of Indigenous and gender-diverse performers will no doubt inspire the next crop of thespians.
& Juliet is not the musical you go to for an edge-of-your-seat plot. It’s two hours of effervescent ridiculousness, like a shot of Skittles Vodka. But to see it, or not to see it? Now that is a question you already know the answer to.
You can get tickets to see & Juliet at the Regent Theatre on the website. The production continues until April 9.