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 – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 7th August 2011

Road ShowThe great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.

It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.

John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I$300 think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.

David BedellaThe two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael JibsonMichael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.

Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.

Gillian BevanGillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.

Glyn KerslakeThe remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.

Jon RobynsYay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.