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Hamilton at Victoria Palace Theatre, London – review round-up

Jamael Westman in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Hamilton’s here, at last. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit musical took America by storm two years ago, and now it hopes to do the same in Britain. Well, it already has, really: this hip-hop history of the founding father without a father has sold out, although there’s a daily £10 lottery to tempt the ticketless [1].

Hamilton: Making a ‘miracle’ of modern musical theatre [2]

The hysterical hype has been hard to miss, but was it justified? Is Hamilton the humongous, award-scooping hit it was in New York, or does it fall flat on London ears? Did the British critics love it as much as their American counterparts?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews

Hamilton – Revolution is in the air

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Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Christine Allado in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

When Hamilton opened in New York, it was hailed by critics as a revolution for American musicals, an effervescent, verse-spitting, style-hopping game-changer. Did London’s reviewers feel the same?
Miranda’s score is “near perfect” for Adam Bloodworth (Metro, ★★★★ [4]), “relentlessly catchy” for Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★ [5]), and a “scintillating fusion of form and content” for Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★ [6]).

“What is astonishing is how well the form fits the subject,” agrees Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★ [7]). “Miranda’s use of rap, hip-hop and R&B becomes the ideal vehicle for exploring the birth of a nation.”

“Street-wise and college-smart, Miranda does things with rap so nifty that even people who hate rap will relent,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★ [8]). “There are roof-raising soul numbers, achingly tender ballads too, here a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan, there a hint of Kander and Ebb. Thanks to the through-sung craft and graft of the piece, though, they all form a unified whole.”

“The lyrics are densely packed, layered with puns and embedded rhymes, and their bristling intricacy justifies Miranda’s thesis that hip-hop is — or at any rate can be — the authentic sound of the American Revolution,” adds Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★ [9]).

Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★ [10]) is quite taken with the “bullet-fast insistence of the assonance.” But then he goes on to devote a portion of his review to pondering whether Hamilton would have been a Leaver or a Remainer before concluding that: “Apart from the lyrics, Hamilton is no revolution.”

Hamilton – American idealism

Jason Pennycooke and the West End cast of Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy [11]
Jason Pennycooke and the West End cast of Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

It wasn’t just the music that made Hamilton revolutionary, though: it was the show’s message, a history lesson celebrating the open-armed opportunity America was founded upon. Does that message resonate in Britain?

Hamilton is “the best kind of history lesson” and “an extraordinarily uplifting vision of people from society’s margins becoming big-hitters”, according to Hitchings, and “a piece that urges America to take pride in its immigrant heritage”, according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★★ [12]).

“What it loses, perhaps inevitably, is the strength of connection to the national narrative,” observes Matt Trueman (Variety [13]). “The founding fathers don’t stare back at us from our banknotes, nor do we study them in school. The idea lands, but not the accompanying feeling.”

“Inevitably it still feels like an American story. But we’re a nation hooked on American stories. And it is celebratory of multiculturalism and immigration, things our city knows very well,” argues Lukowski. “It is of tremendous significance that a group of relatively unknown BAME actors are in a period show that is by a really very long way the best and cleverest thing on the London stage.”

It’s zeitgeist, youthquake, Momentum, it’s woke, it’s post-musical

“Hamilton is a touchstone. It’s zeitgeist, youthquake, Momentum, it’s woke, it’s post-musical,” concludes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★ [14]). “From masculinity, power struggles and the small things on earth, it metastasises into a crying epic about legacy, principle, nations, all the incredible mongrel people within those nations, and how all those people – every single one – can change the world.”

“I’m not sure that Miranda ever fully establishes the difference between Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian paradise and Hamilton’s as one of urban entrepreneurship,” points out Billington.

Hamilton – The British are coming

Giles Terera and other members of the West End cast of Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy [15]
Giles Terera (centre) in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The songs and the sentiment are big hits, then, but what did critics make of director Thomas Kail’s production itself?

The entirely fresh London cast are almost universally lauded [16]. Recent RADA graduate Jamael Westman’s title performance is hailed as “superb” by Hemming and “sensational” Ann Treneman” (Times, ★★★★★ [17]).

“He can rap like a machine gun, sing like a dream, and being both young and prodigiously tall he perfectly channels Hamilton’s gaucheness, as the socially inept but relentlessly driven immigrant sets about trying to liberate and reform America with feather-ruffling vigour,” writes Lukowski.

“Jamael Westman conjures it all, from Hamilton’s desperation to fight for his country’s freedom to the strutting, rutting lothario he turns into,” agrees Bano. “What a thrill, too, to see Westman’s programme bio (headshot, two professional credits) and then see him own that lead role in the country’s biggest musical.”
There’s plenty of praise for his co-stars Giles Terera and Michael Jibson, too, as Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr and King George III respectively. In fact, says Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★★ [18]), Westman is surrounded by “a remarkable panoply of performances.”

But although most critics fall in love with the fluency and fleet-footedness of Kail’s staging – “intoxicating”, for Billington, “precision-tooled” for Cavendish –  some have qualms about the show’s design.
“Heresy perhaps, but it doesn’t stand up to London standards,” explains Trueman. “David Korins’ design, with its fake brick walls and its stained ye-olde timber frame, combines with Howell Binkley’s soft-focus color-cushioned lighting to give the whole thing an air of flimsy theatricality.”

Hamilton – Is it any good?

Jamael Westman in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. Photo: Matthew Murphy [19]
Jamael Westman (centre) in Hamilton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Yep. Manuel’s musical is a five-star smash for The Stage, Time Out, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, the Evening Standard, and loads more. The reviews read like a thesaurus of synonyms for extraordinary.

Miranda’s sensational score feels ferociously fresh to British ears and his progressive political message is rapturously received. If there’s a few faltering facets to Kail’s production, they’re more than made up for by a superb cast, headed by Westman.

Hamilton’s here. Believe the hype.