WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHERE: Victoria Palace
WHEN: 26/12, booking to 28/7/18
The good news is that the touts appear to have been beaten – and the bad is that it’s the most uncomfortable wait to enter a theatre we can ever remember.
- Read on for reasons including how King George’s Britpop number is the comic highlight
Our instructions advise us to arrive at 6.30pm, an hour before curtain up. We do so along with the majority of the rest of the audience and queue for 25 minutes in the pouring rain without an umbrella. Our bad.
By the time we reach the front of the queue we’re soaked through and our mobile phone is so wet it’s struggling to summon up our confirmation email but it does so eventually – and we’re in.
We go to a lot of theatre and there’s an audible crackle in the air, a mix of youthful excitement and enthusiasm from all ages, that we don’t think we’ve ever encountered before.
‘How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’
It’s the first rap sung in this much-hailed musical and proves a neat summary of Act One, the rise of Alexander Hamilton to become one of America’s founding fathers in the 18th century – before his, spoiler alert, Act Two downfall.
Our low-key quest to discover what it was about this dense, historical musical tale that made it so special started with its predecessor In The Heights, which we saw twice in London in 2015.
It was set in the predominantly Dominican-American neighbourhood Washington Heights and it’s a contemporary musical which means rapping and street dancing on a joyous scale.
Born in New York, composer, lyricist and playwright Lin Manuel-Miranda, who is of Puerto-Rican descent, won four Tonys for that breakthrough musical in 2008.
It was its sense of community values in an immigrant neighbourhood which chimed most in our heart during the two performances we saw in King’s Cross in 2015.
In Hamilton, it’s clear what drew Manuel-Miranda to the story: it’s very much in the rap tradition of outsider with nothing makes good and, with a Shakespearean flourish, the trait that propels their rise sows the seeds of their downfall.
What distinguishes it from In The Heights is that it uses the hip hop and rap so well realised there but transfers it to 18th century America where a multicultural cast runs riot with it. For us the musical template is a little Eminem circa 8 Mile (2002, fact fans) but we understand that within musical theatre circles that this is considered somehow revolutionary.
We worried before seeing it this evening that there was so much that Brits would find hard to love about it. However the Britpop-inspired You’ll Be Back sung wonderfully snippishly by Michael Jibson as King George is the comic highlight.
It’s a show in need of comedy because it takes itself very seriously. Some of the politics passed us by. Jason Pennycooke as a dandyish Thomas Jefferson observes at one point that he can’t follow the complexities of Hamilton’s work and we’re with him on that one. At times this seems over complicated.
But for every wrong move Manuel-Miranda has a lyrical flourish that will leave you catching your breath and the rap battles with which much of the densest politics is dissected is at least a blast.
We’d love for the Schuyler sisters to have more to do. Angelica (a fierce Rachel John who we last saw in The Bodyguard) accomplishes much with the explanation of why she and Hamilton won’t work.
We enjoyed Giles Terera in both Pure Imagination and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and here, as Hamilton’s nemesis Burr, he has the part of a lifetime with which he does justice. Novice lead Jamael Westman (centre, main picture above) convinces but is occasionally flat tonight. There’s strength in depth in the cast and we’d give honourable mentions to the ferocious rapping of Tarinn Callender and Obioma Ugoala.
At two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute interval, we came away thinking it was at least a quarter of an hour too long and that the inevitable standing ovation was more for the scale of the ambition rather than how it is realised.
We suspect that, like Les Miserables with which it has much in common, Hamilton will become the sort of show that people who only go to the theatre once a year will want to see. And that it will run. And run.