Victoria Palace, London
You can’t start talking about Hamilton without mentioning the hype. It is one of the most talked about events in the whole world of entertainment. It makes $3million a week in Broadway ticket sales, the soundtrack is beloved, the Obamas say it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen, and Lin-Manuel is a future EGOT (that is winner of the full four major US entertainment prizes: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and national treasure. Can it possibly live up to the hype?
Yes. If anything it surpasses it.
Opening night in London was my third time seeing the show, after two visits in New York (one with Lin-Manuel in the title role and one with his equally superb successor, Javier Munoz). Adding to the thrill of seeing, perhaps, the best show of the 21st century, is the chance to see what has happened to the restored Victoria Palace Theatre.
Shut since Billy Elliot left London after a ten-year run, it has always suffered a little bit from the location. Stuck across from Victoria Station, surrounded by some of London’s busiest roads, it often felt a bit isolated from the bulk of London’s theatre community, only Wicked is visible to keep it company (although the brilliant new The Other Palace is just round the back of the Bressenden Place shopping centre).
Bought a few years ago by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, he’s clearly invested millions in the old place. You can smell the fresh paint everywhere. Indeed, the work isn’t really finished front of house, so there’s still going to be workers pottering around during the day until early 2018. As for the exterior, much remains to be done, partly connected to the massive underground revamp of Victoria Tube station.
Inside the auditorium, however, is where the finished work is most obvious. The seats are all new, and, amazingly for the West End, actually comfy. The green colour scheme may not be to everyone’s taste but they are a treat to sit in. Some fancy boxes at the back of the stalls have been fitted out too. This caused a bit of a commotion when the audience spotted Lin-Manuel Miranda in one of them.
It’s fair to say Hamilton will run for years. Quite possibly it will emulate Sir Cameron’s other London powerhouses, Les Miserables and Phantom, and run forever. Playing the long game, there’s also a new ticketing system designed to stop touts. No tickets are issued in advance. On arrival you join a queue, show ID, get your credit card swiped, and a ticket pops out of a machine. It’s a bit like an old bus conductor arrangement. It’s worked for a few years with last minute ticket sales at Wimbledon, and it seems to be working well for this theatrical debut.
As for what you see on the stage, well you would never guess this was something new to the cast. From the first preview onwards they’ve looked like they’ve been doing this for years. And that they absolutely love what they’re doing. It actually makes you quite proud of the theatre business in Britain that such a young and diverse cast could be recruited without a single weak link in it.
The cast are uniformly good and Michael Jibson as King George III is a particular delight. The character seemed to have been adapted slightly for British audiences. On Broadway it was a straightforward comic turn. Here it seems to borrow quite a bit from the modern day Prince Charles, with a few hints of Cameron Mackintosh’s mannerisms thrown in. Whatever the influences it’s very funny.
Jamael Westman as Hamilton is outstanding. For somebody not long out of RADA, he absolutely commands the stage. It helps that he’s got real physical stature, but he’s also an excellent singer. Miranda’s rap bits can be spoken very quickly, and, for the first time listener, perhaps a bit hard to follow. But with Westman they have a real clarity and nothing is missed.
There are too many joys in the show to list them all. Be sure to look out for the arrival of Jefferson after the interval. What did I miss? Probably quite a lot. Just try to get a ticket to the room where it happens and be ready for one of the best nights of theatre you can have. Welcome to London, Hamilton.