Thursday 4 January 2018

Hamilton @ The Victoria Palace Theatre

Hamilton @ The Victoria Palace Theatre

I was worried. Hamilton arrives in London’s West End as one of the most hyped productions to hit the stage. On Broadway – and across America – it’s been nothing short of a phenomenon. But is it over-hype? Can a show so inherently American translate across the pond?

Hamilton heralds a theatrical revolution in its use of rap, but it doesn’t quite win the battle of storytelling. Its narrative depicts the forgotten Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and recounts his place in US history: his fighting in the war for independence with both rifle and words, and his political career that followed. Yet it also attempts to transcend this, with Hamilton an immigrant seeking his legacy. America is truly the land of the free, allowing a man of aptitude and intelligence to rise to a position of power despite his background. The majority casting of black actors further highlights a poignancy to present day and the need for revolution in current politics.

It’s rich in themes – love, life, legacy and everything in between – but lacking in characterisation. And there’s a number of reasons for this. The most obvious, perhaps, is that for a Brit this period of history has less relevance than for a US audience (for them it’s the start of their modern country, for us…well, we did lose the war after all). This, however, is a moot point. Any piece of theatre should stand complete on its own, even if Hamilton relies a little too heavily on prior knowledge of history.

Really it’s to do with structure. The show whips through history at a rapid, relentless pace that barely stops to breathe for its overlong length. When it does there are some stunning musical moments, but as a whole there’s little time to form a connection with the characters. Instead they’re painted in broad strokes with tonal inconsistencies: the almost gangster-like Hamilton, the comic camp of Benjamin Franklin, the Disney princess Schuyler sisters. There are limitations to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score, too. It’s built upon catchy hooks and monotone raps, but his melodies, though often yearning, sometimes follow suit and feel stunted in the ballads. Add in a handful of performances that lack a little energy and sense of emotional truth, and the show’s big moments just don’t have the gut-punching pay-off they should. It feels too sanitised, polished and restrained.

For the most part, though, the score provides the emotional heft of the show – if not always through melody, then through its warm harmonies and fiery lyrics. There are so many nuggets of absolute brilliance: rap battles of witty rhymes; countless pop earworms and utterly infectious rhythms; beautiful choral singing; musical references to chart-topping performers; the way orchestral strings blend with hip-hop beats and disc scratching. It all weaves together into a detailed tapestry of motifs, reminiscences and foreshadowing, with rap used as recitative and pausing for song as aria. It’s essentially operatic in structure, but composed with the sounds of rap and R&B – cleverly written and hugely rewarding to listen to. No wonder the cast recording is one of the most successful albums in recent years.

It’s also smartly directed by Thomas Kail. Visually striking for its stark staging, the use of the ensemble on the revolving stage creates a maelstrom around its central characters, not to mention a subtle allusion to a spinning disc. Added to this is Andy Blankenbuehler’s modern and powerful choreography that turns the chorus into a visual representation of each characters’ mind. Together with the rapped lyrics, the show’s style takes a while to bed in, but once it clicks the effect is a truly unique piece of theatre. An early highlight is “Satisfied”, sung earnestly by Rachel John as Angelica, that spins backwards before cleverly replaying events from a new perspective.

Even if the characterisation is a little underwhelming, the technical craft of the show is undeniable – intelligent, dense and perhaps demanding of multiple views. Together, the staging and music provide a thrilling juxtaposition of history and modern storytelling.

And that’s the real battle in Hamilton, between young and old, history and modernity, a battle where both sides win. Perhaps the show’s biggest feat is proving rap to be a credible form of theatrical storytelling, a modern musical construct capable of bringing new relevance to history. Not only does the show present rap to a theatre audience, it ensures the theatre is a welcoming place for fans of rap. Never before has a musical been so damn cool.


Watch: Hamilton runs at the Victoria Palace Theatre.