By Clélia Gessner
Art by @enjoy_the_party_
On March 14, 2020, the last two & Juliet shows were performed in the form of a staged concert (as there was no one to play the character of May). I was there for those two special shows, not knowing they would be the last ones for a long time. 559 days later, the doors of the Shaftesbury Theatre finally reopened for the public to see & Juliet again, and I was there to see it happen. This, to me, was so special.
As you might know, before the pandemic & Juliet was one of our favourite shows here at Curtain Call. I personally was lucky enough to see it a grand total of eighteen times in its nineteen weeks in London, so you can imagine how distressed I was when everything stopped and I was unable to see it for a whole year and a half!
In those eighteen months, to keep my love for the show going, I kept listening to the cast recording, kept a close eye on the social media accounts of the show, cast and crew for anything related to it, made backing tracks for some of the songs, learned embroidery to make my own & Juliet denim jacket… I also started a daily appreciation thread which I kept going for a whole year, in which I shared a new detail I love about the show every single day.
It was a very long hiatus. So many reopening dates were set, then pushed back, that I have forgotten how many, but finally as the West End started opening up in the Summer, the 24th of September seemed more and more likely to actually be & Juliet’s grand reopening. Having moved back to France at the start of the pandemic, and with all the procedures in place to enter the UK, I honestly did not think I was going to be able to make it. But, you guessed it, I managed to get myself on a plane and be there for this special day.
As I entered the auditorium, I was greeted by the iconic pre-show music, which consists in instrumental versions of the songs featured in the show but as if they were played on a radio—or a jukebox. This instantly brought me back to my & Juliet days where I would come week after week with my friend and co-writer Constance. It is incredible how what’s meant to be just background music can make you feel such strong emotions! Exactly a month prior, I had made it to the Shaftesbury for the first time since March 14, 2020 to see Be More Chill in its limited engagement and, although it was very emotional to be in this beautiful theatre again, I could feel as I got to my seat that it was a different Shaftesbury without that particular pre-show music (I still had a lovely time at Be More Chill, of course!).
Did I just dedicate an entire paragraph to the pre-show music? Unapologetically, yes. Time to move on to the show now!
If you have ever seen & Juliet before, you know there is a moment when the music changes and then Antoine Murray-Straughan, one of the players, comes on stage. When I heard these first notes, my heart started pounding. And there he was, joined a few seconds later by Rhian Duncan, Sophie Usher (covering for Grace Mouat), and all the other players entering the stage one by one as the audience chatted and took their seats. This pre-show ritual is such an important part for me because it allows a moment of connection with the cast—especially when you are in the first few rows of the stalls. I was further back this time but I still could feel the connection from my past visits and it completely warmed my heart. What I love about this pre-show too is that it establishes the context of the show, i.e. the players are coming on stage as themselves, waiting for their writer, William Shakespeare, to give them their script.
And finally, after an ever so incredible breakdance solo by player Kieran Lai, Sophie Usher came to the front of the stage to deliver the opening line: “Good evening everyone, and welcome to the very first performance of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare!”… Except she had to wait a good minute and a half as the audience got to their feet, giving a standing ovation to the cast. When we finally sat down again, she added “Welcome to the theatre!”, to everyone’s delight. And off we were for the wild ride that is Act 1 of & Juliet. The audience cheered for every character’s entrance: Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) rising up from under the stage at the top of the show, his wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) walking on stage after the opening number, Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) before her iconic number ‘…Baby One More Time’, her nurse Angélique (Melanie La Barrie), her best friend May (new cast member Alex Thomas-Smith!), and of course François Dubois (Tim Mahendran) and his father Lance (David Bedella)… And finally, Romeo’s (Jordan Luke Gage) entrance came, and it always makes the audience go wild, so you can only imagine how crazy it was that night!
After an interval full of bumping into friends and acquaintances—some I had spoken with a lot online since the beginning of the pandemic but whom I had never met before!—, Act 2 started and brought a plethora of standing ovations. I actually cannot recall how many exactly as there were so many! And so well-deserved. One of the best moments in my opinion was ‘Everybody’ where Shakespeare, Romeo, François, Lance and May form a boy band. It has always been one of my favourite moments in the show but reopening night just made everything even better, bigger, crazier.
I have been to my fair share of special shows (the West End Wicked cast change of 2019 comes to mind), but this one definitely takes the cake. The 1,400 seats of the Shaftesbury were simply filled with some of the biggest fans of the show, who, like me, had been waiting over a year for this moment. Every line referring to theatre, audience, being back etc. got a thunder of applause and cheer; every dance number, song, iconic moment, joke etc. got double the usual reaction. You could tell everyone in the room, including the cast on stage would not have wished to be anywhere else in the world at that moment. The joy filling the room was just something else!
One of the highlights of the night was, of course, discovering new cast members: Rhys Wilkinson and Roshani Abbey, who joined the ensemble (as well as second cover Romeo and Juliet) and were absolutely spectacular, as well as Alex Thomas-Smith, who gave an incredible performance as May. Although we will miss seeing Arun Blair-Mangat in the role, it felt incredibly special seeing Alex portray a non-binary character, being a non-binary person themselves. They actually got to discuss the character with the creative team and add a couple lines to the script in the number ‘I Kissed A Girl’ so as to better reflect the perspective of a non-binary person. You will have to go see the show to hear those lines but I can tell you they were a beautiful addition.
Eventually, the show had to come to an end and, after the cast and band took their bows, we were surprised with the appearance of none other than Max Martin, the genius behind all of the music in & Juliet—as he said himself, if you don’t know who he is… Google his name! The simple fact that everyone lost their mind as soon as he set foot on stage proves just how much of a fan of the show every single person in the audience was.
All in all, that night was definitely one for the books. The return of live theatre has brought a lot of reopening nights, which is something that is quite unusual when you think about it. I truly wish to everyone reading this that you one day get to experience something as special as what I experienced at the reopening of & Juliet. As much fun as reopenings are however, let us hope that theatres will never have to shut down again!
To celebrate this special occasion, we are super excited to share an exclusive piece by Kelly Hayes who drew every member of the ensemble, including swings as well as Danielle Fiamanya and Dillon Scott-Lewis who have now left the show but were part of the original cast. Give them a follow on Instagram @enjoy_the_party_ and check out their art and thoughts!