Hamilton

I’d booked the tickets six months ago, just after the most hyped show of the decade, or the century (or indeed ever) opened in London to rave reviews. (Unlike other smash-hit musicals like Les Mis, which the critics hated – as did I.) In the meantime I followed received wisdom and bought the album and listened to it till I could almost recite the whole thing verbatim.

Hamilton programme.jpg

Hamilton programme

The most astonishing thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is that it’s driven as much if not more by its lyrics and its characterisation than by the music. As a one-time lyricist I had always tried to pare the words down to a minimum in the belief that it’s the music everyone wants to hear and nobody is listening much to the lyrics anyway. What’s mould-breaking about the show is not just that America’s founding fathers are all played by non-whites, but that you get the entire history of the American Revolution, and its aftermath, plus a biography of Hamilton’s love life and his relationships with fellow politicians, rapped, sung and very occasionally spoken, and all in the space of just under three hours.

The London show matches the Broadway cast album precisely, which is spooky in a way because it suggests the London cast, and musicians, are puppets of the original. But the cast seem utterly at home in their skins and there are spankingly brilliant performances across the board, especially from Giles Terera as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, Obioma Ugoala as George Washington, Michael Jibson as King George III and Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John as Hamilton’s wife and sister in law Alexandra and Eliza Schuyler. Jamael Westman’s Hamilton is an intriguing mix of great stage presence and self deprecation, and oddly for a young performer almost straight out of drama school, he comes truly into his own in the latter scenes, as a mature man and a remorseful husband and a grieving father.

Hats off too to the fantastic, unfortunately hidden orchestra (MD Richard Beadle) and the non-stop, gyrating ensemble, who like all clever performers make it look like there are more of them than there are.

Worth the hype? Oh boy. I laughed, I cried, I marvelled, and I learned.

Hamilton (4)

Fearsome sniffer dog at the Victoria Palace

Instructions delivered by Ticketmaster in the days leading up to the performance were draconian: no tickets issued until the day of the performance; arrive an hour early, nobody’s allowed in until all the party is together, and once in you’re not allowed to leave again till the end; bring photo ID, booking confirmation and credit card; be prepared for bag searches (nothing surprising there) and sniffer dogs. All to deter ticket touts. In the event the queue stretched around the block but moved quickly, and the staff were efficient and friendly and the whole thing went without a hitch. (Though it would be nice, since there’s all that time to kill, to have a bit more seating in the bar area.)

 

 

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Epic Ayckbourn

Well who’d have thought it?

I know Alan Ayckbourn  has tackled sci-fi before but never like this, never on this scale. This is Ayckbourn without the jokes. Sentimental, even – finally – optimistic. And epic in every way.

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Erin Doherty (programme cover)

The Divide (Old Vic) runs at nearly four hours long. I’d read the reviews beforehand and was prepared, secretly, to duck out at the interval. The fact that I didn’t is more a credit to the production and the players than the play.

In Ayckbourn’s future-world men and women live separately on either side of the ‘Divide’, as women pass on a deadly plague to the men. Procreation is by artificial insemination and the typical family group is a MaMa, a MaPa and kids. For some reason the women wear long black dresses and caps, seemingly uncomplainingly. (The puritan look has become a right cliché in sci-fi – cf The Handmaid’s Tale.) Mirrors are banned. Boys are removed from the family home when they reach puberty and wear white.

To be honest, I quickly stopped asking myself questions about the premise behind the play because absolutely none of it made sense to me, and the central doomed romance is totally predictable. What I did love about it was the production itself: director Annabel Boulton, designer Laura Hopkins, lighting David Plater, music especially composed by Christopher Nightingale (wonderfully appropriate name) and a live chorus of 26. Not to mention the performances, most notably from Erin Doherty, who narrates the entire story to us and is barely off the stage, and her on-stage brother played by Jake Davies. The rest of the large and almost all-female cast are hard to distinguish since they are identically dressed, but pretty faultless throughout.

The final message is both trite and uncharacteristically optimistic from a man who made his name slicing through the facades of everyday relationships. Astonishing.

The production – which closes tonight, February 10th – has been running for just ten days. I may not have gone for the play itself but there is something marvellous about the fact that it is on at all. Whatever else he is doing Ayckbourn is not playing it safe in his older age.

© Patsy Trench
London February 2018

 

 

Queen Anne – Sisters doing it for themselves

The second thing that occurred to me while watching this play was: why has no one written about Queen Anne before? Of all our monarchs she must be one of the least known. The only time her name crops up in conversation it’s to do with furniture.

Queen Anne

Romola Garai & Emma Cunniffe (RSC programme)

Anne was the Protestant – and estranged – daughter of the Catholic King James II and she reigned for 12 years at the beginning of the 18th century, between William III of Orange (her brother in law) and George I of Hanover. She was happily married to Prince George of Denmark and out of 17 pregnancies only three of her children survived, and none of them beyond childhood. She was more or less crippled throughout her life with arthritis and gout and, as a result, obesity, and she could barely walk. But despite all that she ruled – according to Helen Edmondson’s marvellous play – fairly and conscientiously. And she was responsible for the unification of England and Scotland.

Queen Anne the play focuses on the Queen’s relationship with her confidante and close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, a friendship that begins to sour as Anne becomes Queen and the Duchess tries more and more to influence her politically.

The first thing that occurred to me while watching the play was that this is an almost all-female production. Written, directed (by Natalie Abrahami), designed (Hannah Clark) by women, with two stonking central performances for women. Of course most of the rest of the cast are men, excluding the Queen’s maid Abigail (Beth Park), whose influence grows as the duchess’s fades. Bearing in mind this was a time when parliament and political influence was entirely male. Behind the scenes of the royal bedchamber – into which people such as the Lord Chancellor Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope) seem to wander at will – Anne is mercilessly lampooned by satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Arthur Maynwaring, a trick which the duchess exploits as the relationship deteriorates.

First class all round. Superb performances from Emma Cunniffe as the Queen and Romola Garai as the Duchess.

Queen Anne runs at the Haymarket Theatre until 30 September 2017

Patsy Trench, July 2017

Funny Girl

There is a funny story behind this show. I was chatting away to various people after the press night of a new musical (Marco Polo: the Untold Story – for my review, click here) when the press lady grabbed my arm and said – ‘Come and meet the two wives of Bob Merrill’.

Bob Merrill, you may or may not know, was an American lyricist and composer, famous mostly for the lyrics of Funny Girl – including lyrics and most of the music of the old favourite ‘People’ – and such oddballs as How much is that doggy in the window? and If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’.

Funny Girl Bob Merrill (bobmerrill.com)

Bob Merrill (bobmerrrill.com)

Anyway, long story short, after a couple of minutes of chat Mrs Merrill 2 invited me and my friend to accompany the two of them to Funny Girl the following night. Mrs Merrill 1 had been married to Mr Merrill at the time he was writing the show. She said he sung the entire thing, playing every part, to would-be producers by way of attracting their interest and investment. Mrs M 2 lives in London and had seen the show many times at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where this production originated) and again at the Savoy, yet she was more than happy to see it again and was one of the first on her feet at the curtain call. Mrs Merrill 1, who lives in the US, had not seen the show since who knows when, and was, understandably quite overcome by the whole experience.

What a night. And what a privilege to be the guests of two such fascinating ladies. I am still hoping to write their story.

Funny Girl 1

(atgtickets.com)

Oh, and the show? I really have very little to say. It was fabulous, from top to bottom. Beautifully staged, directed, danced, sung, performed. TOTAL star turn from Sheridan Smith. Zestily directed by Michael Mayer and gustily played by a wonderful – and almost visible – orchestra. One of the great things about old musicals is that they don’t tale themselves that seriously. It’s a long time since I had spent an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Funny Girl runs at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. Book tickets here.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

For a good deal of the first act I couldn’t stop thinking about Christopher Isherwood’s I am a Camera/Cabaret/Sally Bowles: the story, told by a young man (and a writer), of a young woman, outrageous, quirky and charismatic, who exploits and enchants everyone she meets. Replace New York with Berlin and you could almost accuse Truman Capote of (alleged) plagiarism.

Breakfast (trh.co.uk)

(trh.co.uk)

I am a camera

(likesuccess.com)

Everyone knows the film of course, if only for Audrey Hepburn. The play is based more on the novella, a slightly darker tale, and all the more interesting for it. Played on the open stage at the Haymarket Theatre and starring Pixie Lott, who I’d vaguely heard of before as a pop singer, you might expect a full-blown musical, in which case you’d be disappointed as she only sings two and a half songs, one of which – People will say we’re in love – comes, weirdly, from another show altogether (Oklahoma, in case you were wondering).

It’s well produced and very well acted, in particular by Pixie Lott. She has all the charm and charisma (and ditziness) for the character of Holly Golightly (wonderful name) and holds the stage with supreme confidence, so it is all the more surprising to see she has had so little acting training. She is well supported, especially by Victor McGuire as the smitten barman and Matt Barber as the frustrated would-be lover.

Breakfast Matt Barber Trixie Lott

Matt Barber & Trixie Lott (lovetheatre.com)

But I couldn’t help wondering why: why anyone would choose such a slight show as a vehicle for a girl who’s made her name as a singer. It makes for a pleasant enough couple of hours, the direction (Nikolai Foster) is snappy and the dialogue slick and funny. Pixie Lott has a lovely voice, though her delivery is rather more 2016 than 1940something. Why not give her a proper musical to shine in?

Kinky Boots

KINKY BOOTS has an interesting and unusual history. Taken from the true story of a shoe factory in Northampton whose failing business was saved, if temporarily, by moving from making men’s brogues into producing kinky boots for drag queens, it became first the subject of a BBC2 documentary and then a film, and finally a Broadway Tony-award-winning musical that has eventually reached the West End.

(kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk)

(kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk)

The producers of the film created the character of Lola, the drag queen, played by Chiwetel EJiofor (now that’s a film I have to see) and it is he/she and the reluctant inheritor of the shoe factory, Charlie, who form the central characters of the musical. The show makes much of their differences – the provincial down-to-earthness of Charlie versus the exotic otherness of Lola – before making great play of their similarities (they both disappointed and defied their fathers). It is this man-to-man-with-no-sex-involved relationship that’s one of the most unusual things about this show. There’s conventional love interest along the way in the form of Charlie’s fiancée, a London-oriented businesswoman who is replaced by the assistant with a crush – a gloriously funny performance from Amy Lennox. Charlie is played by Killian Donnelly, veteran of virtually every musical running in the West End, and Lola by Matt Henry, whose sole experience as far as I can tell from Googling him – being too mean to buy a programme – is coming fourth on The Voice.

officiallondontheatre.co.uk

Killian Connelly, Matt Henry and Amy Lennox (officiallondontheatre.co.uk)

The show is saved by these performances, and by a wonderfully witty script. The weirdness of its hybrid origins – an American-created show about a story set in the English provinces – is evident here and there, and in particular in the character of Charlie, who turns from unassuming Northamptonshire when he speaks into American rock star when he sings. There’s also an American sassiness, not to mention schmaltz, to the script (Harvey Fierstein). There are some creaking plot moments, in particular when Charlie quite uncharacteristically turns on his buddy Lola solely, it seems, to provide us with the subsequent regret-and-making-up moment; and Charlie’s fiancée doesn’t serve much of a purpose (except to give Amy Lennox a wonderfully comedic moment when she realises has a crush on someone else’s man). And there are a couple of puke-making songs which are both unnecessary and out of keeping with the otherwise light-hearted, hilarious and outrageous tone of the rest of the show.

But these days, when the news around us is so grim, there’s nothing like a fun night out to cheer the spirits. The audience was on its feet at the end and I suspect this one will run and run as long and as far as its steel-reinforced stilettos can carry it.

(standard.co.uk)

(standard.co.uk)