Seeing Hamilton at the Victoria Palace is a truly glittering experience. The newly refurbished theatre is spacious, bright and sparkly in all the public areas. And the show itself is like a diamond; not only do the dazzling lyrics sparkle with wit, but the show is brilliantly lit with crisp lighting designs that really support the narrative.
There really is only one problem with Hamilton. It’s one I feared before the show was even half done. And it’s this: after Hamilton, isn’t it possible that everything else will seem (to reference Emma Thompson’s Love Actually line) just a little bit worse?
And, I have to confess, this is exactly the Hamilton effect I’ve experienced. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen shows since and thoroughly enjoyed them. There have been great performances, great bands, great staging. But everything about Hamilton is pushing the bar that bit higher, which can only leave you just a little disappointed every time you see another show. And I don’t just blame Lin Manuel Miranda. Cameron Mackintosh has to shoulder some of the responsibility as well. It’s his fastidious attention to detail that has given us the lovely new Victoria Palace, where there is space around the bar, somewhere to sit, enough toilets and comfy seats in the auditorium. And then there’s the show itself.
I was nonplussed at best by the prospect of a hip-hop musical. But it turns out its hip hop-ness is, amongst many great things, the best thing about it. The words cascade towards you in showers of wit and elegance that leave you, but not the impressive cast, breathless. They bring the characters and the plot to life in a vivid, immediate way that makes this ancient tale from the American Revolution come alive in front of you in a way I’ve not experience with any other historical drama.
That’s another great achievement. Here we are in London with an audience, the greater proportion of whom will never have heard of Alexander Hamilton, avidly following his extraordinary life story. And even though, in the best Hollywood tradition, we get a Brit as the baddie (King George’s turn is worth the price of a ticket alone!), we greet his appearance with a cheer so heavily laced with irony that there’s never any doubt about whose side we’re on.
Hamilton is at the Victoria Palace, London.
Eugenius is a sprightly new musical with winning characters, a satisfying plot and great score. Combine this with a crisp band and charismatic cast and you’ve got yourself a treat of a show.
The 80s set story concerns geeky (not nerdy – they’re different, apparently) teenager Eugene who avoids homework, memories of his dead mother and, indeed, life by spending his time drawing somewhat derivative comic book characters and stories which are snapped up and duly mangled by Hollywood. But it transpires that his characters exist not only in his imagination and on a film set – but also in reality. Cue much fun and drama as the real characters meet their on-set alter egos. Eugene’s journey through this takes him to a place where he can be the hero of his own real-life story.
The plot also offers the opportunity for many digs at 80s pop culture and its casual sexism and homophobia. Indeed, the very fact that Eugene’s comic book leading lady is called ‘super hot lady’ allows us to feel so superior, seeing as how that sort of sexist attitude is no longer acceptable. But once the plot moves to super seedy Hollywood this also serves to bump neatly into the current wave of post Weinstein exploitation and question if things have really moved on as much as we think.
But this is taking the cultural and social history of the piece to a place where it doesn’t really want to be. This is a show that wants you to have fun and wants you to love it. And there are two big reasons why it delivers. First – the cast are just great. I’ve never really understood where a casting director fits into the creative mix, but whatever they do, Jim Arnold has certainly got it right with this company. Liam Forde is making his London stage debut as Eugene and brings warmth and humanity not only to his part but the whole show. Laura Baldwin comes straight from The Other Palace’s previous musical Big Fish to the part of his would-be girlfriend Janey, getting her teeth into a bigger part with some touching, and some belting, singing. His comedy sidekick friend Ferris is played in full-on scene stealing mode by Daniel Buckley. Cameron Blakely just oozes moral corruptness as Hollywood producer Lex, whilst Scott Paige camps it up as his put-upon assistant. I must also mention a brilliantly detailed performance by Ian Hughes as evil Lord Hector – taking to his purple body suit as if to the manor born.
The second reason this show delivers is the score. With no lazy falling back on a juke box of 80 hits, these new and original tunes nevertheless have an instant appeal. And in the intimate space of the 300 seat venue, with half the stage lights pointing at the audience, there’s no chance of escaping the energy and enthusiasm coming at you.
The show has behind it some serious Sci-Fi chops – Warwick Davis co-produces and brings his Star Wars mate Mark Hamill into things as the voice of Kevin the Robot. And the whole thing is top-and-tailed by Brian (Flash Gordon) Blessed’s instantly recognisable tones. The small stage at The Other Palace tests the imagination and ingenuity of both designer and director and between then Hannah Wolfe (set and costumes) and director Ian Talbot show that just because the theatre may be small, it doesn’t mean the show can’t be huge.