Elsinore, 1600. The battlements of the castle. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. And sings!
You know a show’s a winner when you sit through it in joy, walk home afterwards in joy, go to bed in joy, get up in joy and laugh about it all through breakfast. I had a preconceived idea of what “Hamlet! The Musical” would be like, having seen an introduction to it at the season launch and having read a couple of reviews. But actually the show exceeds expectations on all levels. It’s not merely a Shakespearian spoof. The songs are delightfully catchy and tuneful; the lyrics are extremely witty and cleverly thought out; and the cast work their socks off with huge zest to fill the Royal auditorium with laughter and affection.
Shakespeare plays of course do lend themselves to being “musicalised” in different ways. You can take the basic play and put music to it, like Trevor Nunn’s Comedy of Errors in the 1970s; you can attach a musical to the side of it, like Kiss Me Kate; you can use it to inspire a completely new work, like West Side Story; or you can keep the characters and a few words from the original script and tell basically the same plot tongue firmly in cheek like Hamlet the Musical. And it works really well.
Among the songs, it has a big number, “To Be or Not To Be” that strongly reminds me of Sweden’s 1999 Eurovision winner “Take me to your heaven”. The two could nicely interchange! I liked the use of the Danish song sheet and pluckily attempted it in the original tongue. There’s another song which is all about what the bloody bloody hell do we bloody do now, which had me in hysterics. A song that relies heavily on inadequate swear words contrasts so entertainingly with the work of the English language’s greatest wordsmith. To pick just two songs to remember is to do an injustice to the rest of it though; every song works in its own way.
Usually a moody misfit, Hamlet here is presented as part Everyman and part dingbat; his incongruous “ordinary bloke” appearance is so not what you would expect of the eponymous Prince that it really maximises his comic potential. He’s endearingly hopeless, really – needing a decent question, he can only get as far as “to be or…” I thought Jack Shalloo’s performance was a real knockout. It’s the combination of his apparent ordinariness, his slightly “fish out of water” characterisation, and his unexpected ability to sing and dance way beyond what you would expect from looking at him! One cheeky glance and he takes you into his confidence so that his plight is your plight. But then rather than build up a tragic Shakespearian crescendo, instead he’ll play the fool or play up to the girls just like anyone of us would. I loved the portrayal of his England tour – suddenly becoming a popstar, chatting up the talent in the audience and getting the lady cellist to ring him. He’s like a chip off the old block as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father has that certain Vegas quality too!
Ophelia is sweetness and light but becomes the girlfriend from hell that Hamlet needs to ditch in order to avenge his father’s murder. The staging of her descent into madness is one of sheer hilarity. Jess Robinson is great in this role but also in the several other roles she takes, perhaps best as the irrepressibly cheery Rosencrantz, a wholesomely squeaky college dude who would irritate the pants off you on Wittenberg Campus. The other half of this ingeniously presented duo is Gabriel Vick’s Guildenstern, equally nauseating for all the right reasons. He is terrific as Laertes, the kind of guy who comes back from foreign lands having acquired the accent – and much more. I don’t recall Laertes going to Spain, but this one obviously did. He may be all protective of his sister and trying to macho up against Hamlet but deep down you get the feeling he just likes dressing up. I think this is the third time we’ve seen Gabriel Vick – we also caught him in Avenue Q a while back and he was marvellous as the son in the Menier’s Little Night Music (later, Henrik, much later…)
Virge Gilchrist’s Gertrude is a fantastic incarnation of weary lustiness, regretting the fact that her son has “issues”, but being won over by hunky Claudius’ gold codpiece, and her breaking the news of Polonius’ death to Laertes is a stroke of genius! Mark Inscoe’s Claudius is villainy personified and gets nicely uncomfortable watching the play within the play, brilliantly presented as snatches from opera. As Gertrude says, he clearly prefers Ayckbourn. He has a marvellously mealy-mouthed song about his capacity for doing good from which he wrings every nuance. David Burt revels in numerous other roles, including Polonius, nicely hidden behind the arras (not), a gravedigger with a cheeky tombstone bearing an ALW epitaph, and a Fortinbras who suffers from Premature Interjection. It all ends with everyone dead of course, killed with authentic Danish weaponry, and you just love the way they milk the death spasms.
It’s pure escapist entertainment from start to finish. Take an extra tenner with you as you’ll definitely want to buy the CD. It’s on next week in Richmond, and hopefully somewhere else after that. ‘Tis no tragedy, it’s a wonderful two hours that will suit lovers and detractors of Shakespeare alike!