Review – & Juliet ***

Starting where Romeo and Juliet ends, & Juliet is a light hearted imagining of what Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) might have done next if she hadn’t killed herself when she thought Romeo was dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s essentially about female empowerment. Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) powers her way into husband Will’s work, suggesting ‘improvements’! Will, meanwhile (Oliver Tompsett) quickly knows when he’s been beaten and so allows Juliet her second chance. At Romeo’s funeral a host of previous girlfriends turn up, much to Juliet’s surprise, who had been led to believe she was his first love. From this point on messages about female empowerment are landed with a conspicuous absence of subtlety or finesse, eliciting rousing cheers from the enthusiastic audience.

Also pleasing the crowd were the musical numbers from the back catalogue of writer Max Martin whose lyrics were oh so carefully selected and edited to produce knowing laughs of recognition as they fitted into the plot from those who were familiar with his work. Songs included Baby One More Time, Oops!…I did it again, Everybody and Roar. Other than those titles, I was clearly in a minority who failed to recognise much of the music. But this is clearly my loss as Martin is the third most prolific writer of US chart singles, behind only Paul McCarntey and John Lennon. I felt I was missing out at the party and that the songs I did spot didn’t have the resonance or strength of those in some similar juke box musicals. But perhaps it’s an age thing.

That said, the music is, even for those ignorant of it, accessible if in many cases unremarkable. And the performances of it are without exception powerful and energetic. Cassidy Janson and Oliver Tompsett are bright, breezey and funny. It would be hard to wish for two more appealing leads. As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee comes to us from the original London cast of the hugely influential Hamilton – a rare and significant pedigree for such a young performer. She is simply stunning. Powerhouse vocals combine with a performance which is both knowing and naïve in equal measure.

In supporting roles Tim Mahendran as Francois really shines as he discovers his true self and true feelings, making the most of a part which could easily be over shadowed, not least by David Badella as his father, a womaniser with the tongue-in-cheek name of Lance. Badella is, as ever, a compellingly watchable performer who chews through lines without restraint and is rewarded with easily the best gag in the whole show.

The production design is a joy to the eye. Clever costumes are both contemporary and Elizabethan at the same time. We’re watching a play within a play and the set is gloriously theatrical, although the presence of a double revolve which is also a lift seems somewhat extravagant. But I guess the producers thought it was worth the money! It’s certainly a highly polished and professional show. There’s no mistaking this deserves to be in the West End and reminds you of what our London theatres can do. At the same time it’s delightfully young, fresh and original. My only caveat is that the industrial quantities of confetti showered on cast and audience alike at the end would have more impact if there hadn’t been advance warning of its arrival from before the show even started, as little pieces of paper floated down throughout the evening.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Review – Blood Brothers ****

Blood Brothers cast photo

Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers seems to have been around forever. It’s a powerful drama about what happens when twins are separated at birth and live their separate lives. It’s a more serious subject than many musicals but nevertheless it’s not a play with songs but a full musical. Having said that, it’s almost a genre in its own right, with its origins at the Liverpool Everyman theatre a key part of its theatrical DNA.

It started life touring schools. This showed author Willy Russell that if the piece could entertain a room full of teenagers who were only there because they had to be, then it had the necessary legs to be a success as a full-blown musical. It ran in the West End for 24 years.

Actors have to go from being young (age seven) to adulthood. All the performances were totally realistic and convincing. The star name, though, was Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone. For a generation or more she was the person who taught the world to sing as part of the New Seekers. She was simply stunning as the twins’ mother. She really made you sympathise with her problem of having so many mouths to feed.

Getting a job as a cleaner makes her feel empowered to look after her family. But then she finds out she is adding not just one but two mouths to feed, being pregnant with twins. Her only solution is giving one twin away to a married couple who were desperate to have children. A heart-breaking decision with ultimately tragic consequences.

It’s also a social history of life in northern Britain. It’s not been updated, but its themes are timeless. It’s not got any obvious theatrical spectacle but it retains its power 32 year on from its first performance in Liverpool. You are effortlessly drawn into the emotions of the characters.

The songs really help you feel empathy with the characters and move the story on. Beautifully sung by Lyn Paul. This role was her debut musical theatre performance back in 1997 and has been voted the definitive interpretation of Mrs Johnstone. She has played the role several times over the years since and this tour marks the last chance to see her in the part.

The audience, with a significant contingent of teenagers from a local school, were completely captivated. A spontaneous standing ovation was testament to the quality of the writing, production and the performances.

Blood Brothers is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 23 November 2019.