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 – Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 21st July 2012

Kiss Me KateStill on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.

Hannah WaddinghamThe set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.

Alex Bourne Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.

Holly Dale Spencer But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.

Adam Garcia Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.

Kevin Brewis For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.

Jason Pennycooke As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.

David Burt and Clive Rowe David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.

Mark Heenehan The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.

Chichester CathedralP.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. It's gluten-free!A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!