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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Julius Caesar – The Musical

Bristol Shakespeare Festival

Genre: Comedy, Family, Musical Theatre

Venue: Paradise at Augustines


Low Down

An all action hour of sublime musical theatre in a refreshingly novel take on Shakespeare’s great political tragedy.


“He was a traitor boy, he killed a dictator boy” is an early stanza in Bristol Shakespeare Festival’s refreshingly different take on what is arguably the Bard’s best known political tragedy or at least the one with the most stabbings in it.

And it’s hard not to compare Julius Caesar with 21st century politics given the state of the US and UK’s hopelessly polarised, first past the post political systems.  Are you with Team Julius or Team Brutus?  How about Team Rishi or Team Keir?  Give the wrong answer and you could suffer death, or a fate worse than even that – being forced to listen to Boris Johnson’s musings on a loop, for example.  Or Trump playing “the victim” again.

So the audience in the packed cellar that is Paradise at Augustine’s Studio hedge their bets by going along with whatever each prospective leader suggests to them – classic floating voter behaviour.

One suspects that most of those present (and anyone likely to attend later in the run) know the premise behind the piece – that tyrants are better off being removed before they have the chance to inflict terminal harm on democratic institutions.  Or am I referencing 21st century politics again?  Either way, Caesar quickly meets a sticky  end which ushers in the political machinations of his various executioners vying to succeed him.  Naturally (this is a Shakespeare tragedy, remember), it all turns to custard via a grizzly selection of further murders.

A clear, flat stage greets us with a vast array of props and costumes carefully placed on its fringes.  Quite why becomes clear over what proves to be a helter-skelter hour of political tragedy turned comedy, all set to table thumping, foot stomping tunes from the Beatles through to the Bee Gees via Queen, Abba, My Chemical Romance, Dylan and a plethora of others from the well known to the esoteric.

The all female cast of six certainly hit the stage running with Tragedy, their whirlwind opening number.  And the hits just kept on rolling, rolling, rolling, each song with a fresh, topical and often cuttingly amusing set of lyrics that stuck faithfully to Shakespeare’s plot, negating the need for any of those endless soliloquies that so many of his characters seemed to delight in drowning his audiences with.

It’s high energy stuff throughout and tremendous credit is due to each of the cast for the way they formed the various subsidiary characters they played in addition to their principal role.  Astrid Bishop (Cassius) has a commanding stage presence, a wonderful singing voice and has that uncanny knack of being able to engage seamlessly with an audience.  Hannah Press (Mark Anthony) also bestrode the stage like a colossus  and her voice “hits the back of the hall”, perfect in both pitch and pronunciation.  Roisin Hamilton (Brutus) too, has a resonant, crystal clear singing voice, at least when the rather dodgy radio mike she was assigned was functioning.

And I particularly enjoyed Megan Gwen Davis as Calpurnia – the music/lyrics for her dream sequence reducing the audience to tears of mirth.  Naomi Richards as the eponymous Caesar was appropriately narcissistic and Hannah Little as the Soothsayer (and a variety of other vignettes) extracted the humour ever present in the script.

Packing these twists and turns into just under an hour’s worth of entertainment was some achievement so hats off to Writer/Producer Rachel Waterhouse and Director/Techie Justin Stathers who have crafted a high class piece of musical theatre where the action never stops and has the audience hooked from start to finish.  There’s a lot of fine detail in this show, particularly the feast of one-liners, asides and quips that characters manage to slip in during many of the songs.  Getting the timing right on each of those (and it was perfect in the show I saw) will have taken a lot of rehearsal and direction.

This is a piece of high class musical theatre, fresh, innovative, witty and clever yet true to a work that’s four centuries old and has been “done to death” in oh so many guises.  It comes highly recommended but you’ll have to get your skates on as it finishes on 12 August and is already filling the auditorium.  Get a ticket as it’s Caesar like you’ve never seen it before.