Victoria Palace Theatre
Believe the hype: there's plenty of it. Ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-opera made its Broadway debut two years ago, it's been a cult phenomenon, catapulting Alexander Hamilton, previously America's most overlooked Founder, into one of its most revered overnight. Many Brits have been playing the soundtrack on repeat in eager anticipation of a West End transfer and now it's finally here. But will audiences be as fond over the Pond?
Well, of course we will, we enjoy a good tune even if it's at our expense, and Hamilton is packed with them. It grips you from its opening line, as Vice President and arch rival Aaron Burr intones, “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 one man's remarkable story that encapsulates the ambition and audacity of the early days of the United States.
Anyone familiar with the music will already be acquainted with the multi-layered wordplay, so delicious in songs like Satisfied, a number as much about unquenchable lust as it is about ambition. They'll also be in awe of the sheer amount of information it imparts, condensing as it does an 800-page biography by Ron Chernow and nearly 30 years of American history into two hours and 45 minutes of theatre. Don't go in tired.
But to appreciate what a technical challenge Hamilton is, it has to be seen to be believed. There's an astounding vocal dexterity required to spit a treatise on foreign policy or the rules of an 18th century duel but this company is well up to the task. Assembled over a year, the London cast look like they're been working together for years, rather than months. The title role is expertly occupied by recent RADA graduate Jamael Westman, a rangy south Londoner with questionable facial fuzz. Yet, there's something utterly compelling about this statuesque diamond-in-the-rough. He feels like an authentic underdog.
Michael Jibson steals every scene he's in as a blinged up King George III, and even raises a few ironic cheers (he's booed on Broadway, apparently). A more understated tyrant than expected, he arches a disdainful eyebrow at audience members while draped in furs. “Awesome! Wow!” he sneers nasally, on the news of the newly-established land of the free. Jason Pennycooke is another highlight as a flamboyant Thomas Jefferson, dressed as a Purple Rain-era Prince on his return from a cushy post as ambassador to France trilling, “What I'd miss?”
Aside from a grubby brick facade and occasional office detritus, there isn't much set to speak of, just the cast dancing like dervishes in period dress, which only serves to enhance the entrepreneurial spirit of the story. While there are some show tunes sprinkled about, it's no happy accident that hip hop and R&B forms the core of the score. As the language of struggle and hardship, it's the perfect vehicle to carry Hamilton's own rags-to-riches tale. To hammer the point home, the cast is deliberately diverse, a glorious vision of a modern immigrant nation. “I'm just like my country, I'm young scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot,” they chorus.
It's a progressive piece of theatre, but it will endure long after these politically-charged times of ours. Hamilton, a flawed hero, may have set up the nation's first bank, but Miranda doesn't shy away from his arrogance and serial womanising either. His son Philip's death, in a duel defending his father's honour, is universally devastating.
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is the final refrain, and one that follows the audience out of the theatre. Hamilton resonates, not just because it's a great story or even because it's innovative, though it is both of those things. It's a phenomenon because of its humanity.
You may know the history, you may even know the soundtrack, but there's nothing quite like being in the room where Hamilton happens.
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