Theatre Review: “Hamilton”, London

I first became aware of the Broadway show Hamilton when we visited family in the US in 2016. I was told that if (when!) this came to London I should beg, steal or borrow tickets because it was sensational. Yes, I said, politely, thinking that a show about the Founding Fathers of America probably would not do as well in the UK. It has. And it is. Sensational.

Hamilton 1My youngest daughter, a keen singer, started getting into the show a year or so ago. She has been listening to and singing along to the soundtrack almost continuously ever since. When it was her birthday earlier this year I decided to get her tickets. I was astonished to discover how difficult these were to obtain (and how expensive!), so she has been waiting patiently for almost six months to enjoy her birthday gift. Last week, during half term, we travelled to London to see the show. It was worth the wait and she promptly declared that it was the best experience of her life. For me, seeing her enjoying something so much and how she has engaged so wholeheartedly with the story, the music and the ethos of the production, has the been the greatest pleasure.

I’ve seen a few musicals over the years, and many of the biggest ones, but they would not normally be my first choice for theatre. I prefer drama. Also, I find that some of these productions, when they have had very long runs, can become tired. Hamilton has been at the Victoria Palace for over a year now and it certainly has not run out of steam. The show was a tour de force from the opening bars to the final curtain. I must also say that, knowing the songs as well as I do (they’ve been in my background for months!) added to my enjoyment.

I knew next to nothing about Alexander Hamilton the man. He was the brains behind the United States financial system, the first Treasury Secretary, influential in George Washington’s presidency and founder of the national bank. As an orphan who climbed his way to the top of politics, he embodies the American dream of self-made success. He was killed in a duel by his long-time rival Aaron Burr in his late forties. Quite a life.

As you may know, Hamilton has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, mostly for its originality. The music of the show incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B and soul, unusual for this type of production, and it is both refreshing and memorable. It is also well-known for its colour-conscious casting of non-white actors. Whilst none of the main protagonists in the story were actually people of colour, the aim was to draw attention to how black and non-white history is so often under-acknowledged and under-discussed. It seemed appropriate that we went to see the show during black history month which aims to redress that balance.

So, a stunning show that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I now consider myself a fan and would definitely see it again. The energy of the show left both my daughter and I on a real high.

Have you seen Hamilton? If so, what did you think?

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Theatre review: “Happy Days” by Samuel Beckett

I consider fortunate to live in Manchester with its wonderful theatres. I grew up in and spent many years working in central London where you are spoilt for choice for theatre and the Arts, but, reality check, with a family it’s not so easy to exploit all those opportunities. The great thing about Manchester and the Royal Exchange Theatre in particular, is that whatever you see there you can pretty much guarantee it’s going to be good. And now that Maxine Peake seems to have made it her creative home, with so many productions in which she stars or directs, you know you are going to get something special.

I can’t say I’m that familiar with Beckett’s work; apart from Waiting for Godot, I’ve not seen any of his other plays. My husband is quite a fan though so we went along to Happy Days last week. It runs until 23 June, so if you have an opportunity to go and see it – DO! It is pretty special.

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Before the start – Maxine Peake, as Winnie, up to her waist in a mound of earth.

The play is basically a monologue, with Maxine as Winnie, middle-aged, lonely and trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, disconnected from wider society. This is represented quite literally with her up to her waist in a mound of earth, unable to move. Her husband, Willie, lies below, and speaks only very occasionally when addressed by the increasingly desperate Winnie. He is more mobile, but chooses not to be, spending his days lying in the sun, or in his hole, while Winnie chatters endlessly above him about nothing. The skill of the actor here, though, is conveying Winnie’s loneliness and her increasingly desperate mental state with meaningless dialogue and constrained physical movement. This is where the intimacy of the Royal Exchange works so well; the mound of earth rotates so that everyone in this round auditorium can see the lines of anxiety on Winnie’s face, the cracks in her mask. Her daily routine, the morning bell, the evening bell and all the little grooming and time-killing rituals in between, means she is just about holding it together. But for how long?

Spoiler Alert!

The second act gets a shade or two darker still and is quite shocking. By this stage Winnie is buried neck-deep and Willie is nowhere to be seen; he appears briefly at one point, encircling the mound in a morning suit. He has clearly moved on. Winnie is alone. At the start of act two Winnie is hanging on to her sanity by her fingernails. Despite the audience only being able to see her head (there are a number of screens so you can see her up close), Maxine Peake still manages to connect intensely via her facial movements, the interpretation of the words and her raw emotions. It is quite extraordinary.

The next production in the Royal Exchange’s main auditorium is The Queens of the Coal Age, written by Maxine Peake and directed by her long-time collaborator Sarah Frankcom. It promises to be another must-see. It can’t be long, surely, before Maxine attains national treasure status, but for the moment she is definitely regional treasure and we are very lucky to have her.

Go and see this play if you have the chance.

If you have seen this production, what did you think?

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.