Review – Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, 8th December 2018

HamiltonIt’s been 28 full days since we last went to the theatre so Mrs Chrisparkle and I were suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. But we’d been waiting a long time to see Hamilton – booked way back in January – and, what with all the hype, and great word-of-mouth feedback, we were itching to get into the Victoria Palace.

Victoria PalaceAnd that’s something that you may find easier said than done. If you’ve booked paperless tickets through Ticketmaster, follow their instructions to the minutest detail, lest you end up forlorn on Victoria Street and no doubt a few hundred pounds down on the deal. You must print out your confirmation email. You must bring ID (we took passports). And you must bring the card with which you paid for the tickets. If your card has changed in any way, contact them in advance so they can update the details. And if Granny from Aberdeen bought you the tickets as a Christmas present, unless Granny shows up with her card, you’re not going to get in. It’s one way of dealing with the touts, but I’ve seen a few sorry tales online where people have missed out because they didn’t read the fine print. You have been warned!

Ash HunterA word about the Victoria Palace: I remember how much the late Dowager Mrs C loathed that theatre. It brought out all the snob in her (and there was quite a lot of that). She associated it with the Crazy Gang, on whom she looked down from a very great height because they were “so common”. The first time we went there together was to see Carry on London in 1973 – a revue featuring members of the Carry on team including Sid James and Barbara Windsor – and she sat through it with gritted teeth. I loved it. But then I was only a kid.

Sharon RoseBut even she would be hard-pressed not to come away from the newly refurbished Victoria Palace without begrudging admiration. It’s a stunner. Beautiful foyers and bars, elegant ceilings, well-equipped bathrooms, and comfortable seats with a great sightline to the stage even from as far back as Row P of the stalls (which is where “Best Seats Available” allotted us). True, the leg room could be better; but as a work of art they’ve done a smashing job.

Aaron Lee LambertSometimes, when a show comes along with tremendous hype, you’re inevitably faced with some kind of disappointment. Maybe the story wasn’t up to much; maybe the songs weren’t that memorable; maybe the performances were lacklustre. Well, with a fresh replacement cast in place after one triumphant year in the West End, does Hamilton deserves its hype? Oh goodness me, yes. Hamilton is up there as one of the greats – no question. I believe that if I had been a 15 or 16 year old teenager, seeing this show for the first time, I would have instantly announced that it would be my favourite of all time.

Stephenson-Ardern-SodjeIf you don’t know what it’s all about, where have you been hiding? But, in brief: 1757 welcomes Alexander Hamilton, a soon-to-be orphan, born out of wedlock, with precious little to his name. He shows enormous promise in his teens as a political observer and writer of articles. By the age of 20 he has become Lieutenant Colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington. Always a natural second-in-command kinda guy, we see his career (and his relationships) develop as he becomes first Secretary to the Treasury, then later founds the New York Evening Post. We see him alongside founding fathers Washington and Jefferson, but, as his rivalry with Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr becomes too strong, Burr kills him in a duel. (Sorry if you didn’t know…. but it did happen 214 years ago, so it’s hardly a spoiler).

Jon RobynsWhat sets this show apart from your ordinary run-of-the-mill show about any historical figure, is the use of rap. Now, normally, that word would be enough to turn me right off. If you’re the same, take a risk and open your mind. This is a musical littered with great tunes, witty and intelligent lyrics with lots of word-play and internal rhymes that enhance the sheer sparkle of the songs and the storyline. Because so much of the show relies on the audience hearing every nuance of the lyrics no matter who is singing or speaking, it’s vital that it’s as technically perfect as possible. It is. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where the words were so clear, and the audio balance between the singers and the orchestra was so perfect. It was an absolute joy to hear. Two-and-three-quarter hours simply flew by.

Sifiso MazibukoIt was a day of supersubs, with a number of the major roles being taken by alternate performers and covers. Alexander Hamilton himself was played by “alternate” Ash Hunter, who gave a strong, confident and determined performance with a great singing voice. His other half, Eliza, was played by standby Sharon Rose with a blissful performance of devoted sweetness and emotion; there was one scene where their joint sorrow over the death of their son was so movingly done that it fair brought a tear to Mrs C’s eye, so it did. I, of course, was made of sterner stuff. There was also great support from second cover Aaron Lee Lambert as Mulligan/Madison and first cover Stephenson Ardern-Sodje as the tragic duo of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.

Allyson Ava-BrownJon Robyns relished his regular solo appearances as King George, all smug and egotistical as he distastefully waves goodbye to one of his little colonies, posing the question, what happens now? which couldn’t be more relevant as we near the end of our own Brexit saga. Sifiso Mazibuko gave a good solid performance as the Everyman character Aaron Burr and Allyson Ava-Brown was superb as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, constantly ruing the one that got away. Jason PennycookeJason Pennycooke was every bit as watchable as you would expect in his dual roles as the effervescent Lafayette and the calculating Jefferson. But for me the top performance was by Dom Hartley-Harris as the charismatic George Washington, bold equally in war and at the despatch box, majestic of voice and riveting to watch. He’s come a long way from playing the Emperor in Aladdin in Northampton last Christmas.

Dom-Hartley-HarrisLin-Manuel Miranda’s personal achievement of writing the book, music and lyrics for this piece is quite astounding. His ability to create a running storyline, packed with incident and characters that you care about, is truly second to none. I can well understand why people go to see this show again and again, and I’m sure this will not be our last time. Be like Alexander Hamilton – don’t throw away your shot but come to the Victoria Palace and see for yourself this slice of theatrical history. Absolutely superb.

Review – Aladdin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December 2017

AladdinGreetings, gentle reader, and may I be among (probably) the last to wish you a Happy New Year. Now that the chocs are eaten and the decs are down (mine aren’t but will be soon) it’s that time of year when I have to play catch-up reviewer of all the shows we saw around the Christmas period, some of which have now closed, so there’s nothing I can say that might convince you to see them or otherwise – because it’s too late!

Aladdin4One such production was this year’s Qdos Entertainment pantomime at the Royal and Derngate, Aladdin, with its happy promotional poster of Paul Nicholas, Jaymi Hensley and Sheila Ferguson all smiling cheerily and Kev Orkian looking defiantly cheeky. Already you know it’s going to be everything you could wish for in a panto. Gosh, it even says that on the front cover of the programme. Aladdin7Last year we didn’t see the Royal and Derngate’s Jack and the Beanstalk because the promotional photo showed Simon Webbe looking grumpy, and my brain got the message this won’t be fun. There’s a lot of competition for the panto pound, and the promo has got to be right to get the audience behind it. That wasn’t; but this was. Anyway, it had Sheila Ferguson in it, so of course I was going to see it.

Aladdin6The theatre had a great vibe of happy expectation and there’s no doubt the whole audience had a great time. The sets were lively, colourful and fun, with a good mix of cartoony images as well as the more sophisticated special effects that panto audiences now expect. Do you wave at Aladdin as he rides his magic carpet out into the audience? Of course you do. Phil Dennis’ compact little band, tucked away in one of the side boxes, gave us more oomph than only three guys had any right to, and Alan Burkitt’s enjoyable choreography had just about enough West End feel to it to make all the musical numbers go with a swing.

Aladdin2As always with a panto there were a couple of standard routines that brought the house down. I loved the tongue-twisting scene where Kev Orkian’s Wishee Washee had to act as a go-between relating the linguistic horrors of the short-sleeved shirt shortage between Darren Machin’s Widow Twankey and Paul Nicholas’ Abanazar. However, the best for me was when Wishee, realising that everyone else was frozen in time, repositioned the dancers, Aladdin3the Emperor, the Princess and Widow Twankey into contorted positions to make a funny effect by pushing the last one over. When Wishee asked the boys and girls whether or not he should kiss the defenceless Princess, nearly all of them shouted back NO! which made my go on my son! sound a bit pervy, so apologies if you were offended. Mr Orkian’s teasing the cast – especially dancer Serge and the precariously balancing Aladdin9Emperor Dom Hartley-Harris, was hilarious. One thing that really was noticeable – how they don’t waste time falling in love in Pantoland. Mr Harley-Harris had the hots for Widow Twankey quicker than a gulp of Peking Tea, and as for Zoe George’s Princess Jasmine consenting to be Jaymi Hensley’s Aladdin’s gf… well, all I can say is she must be a Union J fan.

Aladdin1It was unusual, but very rewarding, to see a panto that was sung so well. Mr Hensley and Ms George’s duets were both touching and powerful; but with leads Paul Nicholas and Sheila Ferguson you knew you were going to be in for a musical treat. With a few unsurprising Marigold Hotel references between them, they really lit up the stage. Mr Nicholas still has that charismatic twinkle in his eye even if you can barely see it for his turban. Anyone hoping for a reprise of Dancing with the Captain (just me then?) would have been disappointed, Aladdin5but vocally he’s still got it and puts real characterisation and mischief into his songs. Ms Ferguson is still as pitch perfect as ever, with terrific renditions of River Deep Mountain High and the Three Degrees’ own Year of Decision, with which she closed the first half. Having had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago for a Eurovision radio programme (and yes, I know, she never did Eurovision) she told me how much she hated that song. Sign of a real trouper then!

It was a perfect way of starting our Christmas week and everyone went home buzzing. A first-class production of an excellent panto!