Sydney Lyric Theatre, March 7


You know those restaurants that serve drinks matched to the food? Here, upon arrival, we received a complimentary drink perfectly matched to this musical: a frothy pink gin cocktail served in a plastic martini glass. Just as no self-respecting drinker would savour this, so no musical theatre connoisseur will delight in the frothy, syrupy, plastic & Juliet.

That doesn’t mean the show will struggle to find an audience. Musical theatre, you see, is like sport. When Shane Warne was playing cricket, some people attended who could pick the bowler’s flipper; others came to drink the bar dry and chant “Warnie” for hours. & Juliet is one for the chanters.

Lorinda May Merrypor and Casey Donovan. Photos: Daniel Boud.

It’s not that it entirely lacks merit. Some of the story-telling is clever and all the performers are energised and skilled. The problem is the music. Max Martin has composed hit singles for artists including Britney Spears, Pink, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, The Weekend, Justin Timberlake, and Lizzo. But bunch 30 of his songs into a jukebox musical, as David West Read has done here, and the excruciating cumulative effect is of faux emotion.

These are songs without subtlety, nuance or surprise. Every emotion must be as big and garish as the Kings Cross Coke sign, and as sugary as the product itself. So, in a way, one must pay tribute to Read (best known as a co-creator of TV’s Schitt’s Creek) for corralling them into his storyline. Then again, you also suspect that if you swapped the 30 songs around between characters and plot-points, not much would change.

The best thing about & Juliet is the conceptual conceit. Shakespeare (Rob Mills) has been knocking out Romeo and Juliet when his wife Anne (Amy Lehpamer) arrives in Elizabethan London, somewhat underwhelmed by her husband’s idea of both marriage and how to end a play. She can’t see that Romeo killing himself is a particularly strong reason for Jules to follow suit.

So a new version of the story plays out as Anne conceives it. In a particularly charming twist, she writes herself into the story, relishing the fact that, if Juliet wants to go to Paris, she can make it happen with the flick of a quill. But her bickering with Will continues until Anne breaks the quill in a rage, whereupon Will says, “I guess Juliet’s on her own, now.”

Amy Lehpamer and Rob Mills. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Mills and Lehpamer are the sort of old pros who can take the sketch of a character and make a watercolour, if not quite an oil painting – and do this despite the songs they’re obliged to sing. Similarly Casey Donovan makes a living breathing character out of Angelique (Juliet’s nurse) and, as ever, sings her socks off.

Teetering as it does upon such a flimsy frame, there would be no show without a charismatic Juliet, and Lorinda May Merrypor provides that with her winning smile, belting voice and vast dark eyes. Hayden Tee plays Lance, the father of Juliet’s new love interest, Francois (Yashith Fernando), with the most outrageous French accent since John Cleese was atop a battlement, and Blake Appelqvist (Romeo) and Jesse Dutlow (May) complete the leads.

With the songs so singularly lacking in variation, Soutra Gilmour tries valiantly to compensate with her scenic design, in this Australian iteration of the West End production. Directed by Luke Sheppard and dazzlingly lit by Howard Hudson, it’s routinely staged like a video clip, with choreography (Jennifer Weber) to match. But there’s some saying about a silk purse and a sow’s ear. How does it go again?