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& Juliet

by on 7 November 2022

1501-1911-2021 By Any Other Name

& Juliet

by Max Martin, book by David West Read

Shaftesbury Theatre, West End until 24th March

Review by Claire Alexander

Claire Alexander visits The 1911 and takes a peek backstage at the new-look Shaftesbury Theatre before seeing a multi-award-winning musical

The Shaftesbury Theatre, on Princes Circus in London’s West End has transformed itself into a venue fit for 21st Century theatre and beyond, whilst faithfully maintaining its heritage and its listed status.   Within stepping distance of Tottenham Court Road station and the finally streamlined Elizabeth Line, I could get there in just over half an hour from my West Ealing home.   It is worth a visit.

The theatre’s owners were not idle while theatres were dark during Covid.  As the only surviving independent theatre in London’s West End, the owners and the CEO, James Williams have had the freedom and the foresight, together of course with the imagination, to reimagine their theatre as much as an events space as well as a state of the art 21st C theatre that can stage the world’s biggest and most ambitious musicals.

The result is a fabulous and airy bar and events space in the basement of the foyer, actually under the road.  The 1911, named after the theatre’s opening in that year, is a relatively long thin space, but not at all cramped.  The designers have sympathetically maintained many original features such as exposed brickwork, and on one long wall there is a fascinating and thought provoking exhibition of the history of the theatre, from the destruction of the war years and the blitz, through iconic shows that have played there from controversial Hair (which ran for 1,998 performances) to Hairspray in 2007 and the current show & Juliet which opened in late 2019 and will end in March 2023.     This bar will serve sharing plates to audiences from up to ninety minutes before curtain up and they have made links with local restaurant, Amelia, and local brewery Brewdog.  It will certainly transform audience experience.

One of the prices that one pays for London’s precious theatre heritage is that many of the original West End theatres can be cramped and very tight spaces in those half hours before curtain up.  Not so The Shaftesbury any longer.    And all, or part of this, can be hired out as an events space meaning that the theatre need never be dark, confidently allowing it to be even more adventurous with its theatrical programming.   There are smaller additional spaces that have been redeveloped, including the Boiler Room (named after the site of the theatre’s old steam boiler) and plans to redevelop one of the upstairs bars.

I was privileged to visit the fly tower – an award winning construction installed in 2015.  If you have ever sat in a cavernous auditorium and wondered how large pieces of scenery, backdrops etc, which are the height of the stage, get there, then it is through the fly tower!   Reached by climbing numerous stairs that get smaller and smaller and narrower and narrower.  At the Shaftesbury Theatre this can take 35 tons and again allows the theatre to mount the most ambitious sets.

And so, to the current production, & Juliet.  Running since November 2019 this has been hugely successful despite the enforced break during Covid.  The show’s idea stems from Shakespeare’s original Romeo and Juliet and asks, in a cleverly conceived musical narrative, what might have happened if Juliet had not killed herself in that fateful moment and got to live her life.  So, accompanied by her friend May her nurse (a nice reference to the original play) she goes to Paris (a clever pun on the original character from the play), where inevitably she falls in love again, but this time with Francois!   Conspiring parents are still at work with ideas of their own about their children’s love lives, but at this point the freedoms of the 21st C kick in.  Francois finds that he really wants to be with transgender May, and Juliet wants her independence despite Romeo returning, desperate to pick up where they left off … his death was only a sleeping potion after all!  

This is all beautifully woven together by Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s long-suffering wife, nicely played by Cassidy Jansen), making a bid for creativity and recognition of her own, despite her husband’s protestations.  It might sound rather far-fetched when you read it like this, but actually the story works really well.  There is enough of the original reference in there for those who like their Shakespeare, like me, but where this show really scores is that it brings to life the original play in a meaningful and contemporary way to a younger audience, with its focus on women’s voice and transgender.    There are some stunning musical numbers and the small chorus of characters, in an original meld of 16th C and 21st C costumes, are versatile and athletic with great energy.  At the matinee performance I attended it was an opportunity for Bessy Ewa, as Juliet, to show her talent with a great vocal presence but an integrity in the more intimate scenes.  And I particularly liked Joe Foster, as transgender May, whose performance was honest, truthful and subtle, and yet filled the huge auditorium.   The scene between May and Francois (cheekily played by Billy Nevers) as they first meet was a highlight.    

Princes Circus is also in redevelopment to be pedestrianised soon, adding further to a great experience at the Shaftesbury Theatre.  The centre of gravity of the West End is shifting towards the Tottenham Court Road end and I can get home to Zone 4 in half an hour!!  And this theatre’s future is assured for another 110 years of memorable productions.

& Juliet will close in March 2023 (and the theatre’s producers were being suitably coy about what will follow).  Go and see it while you have the chance.

Claire Alexander, November 2022

Photography courtesy of James Williams and Davies Tanner

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