Theatre Reviews: Hamilton / The Grinning Man / Bananaman / Cinderella

Hamilton ★★★★

By Peter May

It would almost be a relief to report that London’s hottest and newest musical, which opened just before Christmas has shrunk beneath the bloat of its hype.  Along with making headlines in the news for its groundbreaking theme are the eye watering ticket prices.  The show is fully booked until the summer however you may still get lucky and win a chance to buy a golden ticket in the daily lottery. Nearly three years since its New York debut, this brave musical about America’s founding fathers has been given worshipful press, usually reserved for royal pregnancies or New Years Day super moons.

Hamilton is a show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. It accomplishes this by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on the radio — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a weighty musical about long-dead white guys whose dignified faces glower from the green dollar notes in our American friends wallets. Washington, Jefferson, Madison are all present here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette. They all don the outfits you might expect them to wear in a traditional costume drama and the cast fill the large stage in the recently beautifully refurbished Victoria Palace theatre.

The talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who played the lead role in the Broadway version, created Hamilton after becoming engrossed reading Ron Chernows’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on holiday, and began writing songs for it.  Most of the cast, like the original, all of the main characters in it are played by people of colour and Miranda’s shoes are filled by newcomer Jamael Westman – a 25 year old Londoner who has just two stage appearances under his belt buckle.

Alexander Hamilton is the centre of it all but Burr is just as good and brings the house down with the jazz romp’ The Room where it happens’.  UK audiences will find great amusement in the superb portrayal of King George III. Michael Jibson camps it up playing him for great laughs plus there are excellent dance numbers with the Schuyler Sisters who sing to us ‘If you can marry a sister, you’re a rich son’. It is all excellent stuff to watch but will the thing run long enough for you to actually get tickets? A new wave of ticket allocations has just been announced for July onwards so be just like Hamilton – be scrappy, hungry and remember do not give away your shot – to buy a ticket!

The Grinning Man ★★★

Amongst the cheery festive pantos around this time of year Tom Morris’s macabre musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s novel ‘The Man Who Laughs’ sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a fable about a young man called Grinpayne whose face has been mutilated when he was a child leaving him with an eternal smile resembling the character Twisty from TV’s American Horror Story. A kind elderly man takes him under his wing, along with Dea, a blind infant girl he finds in the wilderness.  As they grow older they become part of the travelling carnival attraction. When Grinpayne becomes affected by the reactions of the audience he decides to seek out revenge on the person who carved up his face.

Morris’ productions is visually striking, the stage is set amongst a giant set of teeth. Writer Carl Groze has condensed the complex 19th century plot, while composers Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler have supplied the tunes. Three veterans of the worldwide smash hit War Horse have reunited for the Grinning Man so there is excellent puppetry involved too. An Irish wolfhound, half-puppet and half-human prowls across the stage alongside the pint sized Grinpayne.  In the times when human Louis Maskell plays Grinpayne, he displays no difficulties of being able to sing through the bloody scarf adorning his mouth and prosthetics.

There are elements of the story, which echo Les Miserable, Phantom of the Opera and the Elephant Man combined with a touch of Pinocchio. There are also fine vocal performances from all involved and an excellent injection of humour from Julian Bleach playing the wicked Barkephedro the bad clown. The Grinning Man is quite a hefty show to sit through, clocking in at nearly three hours but it one that should not be missed.

Until 17 February, Trafalgar Studios

Bananaman: The Musical ★★★

If you were a Beano loving child from the 1980s and you sit here in the audience waiting for this new musical to begin, you are guaranteed to expect a large dose of nostalgia. Endless theme songs from classic 80s cartoons play in the background beforehand ready to get you in the mood. Superheroes can be all rather generic but the thing with Bananaman is that he is pretty much anything but super.

The action unfolds on Acacia Road, a dull suburban place where ‘nothing ever happens’. That is until two villains turn up with evil plots, for you see Acacia Road is about to be the destination for a looming, glooming comet.  Prior to becoming Bananaman is Eric Wimp, an amiable boy who works at his mothers fruit shop and has a crush on his classmate Fiona.   His faithful friend Crow follows Eric around and is performed very well as a hand puppet by Jodie Jacobs who actually has a rather good voice.

The musical is bananas but the plot feels slightly over stretched, I did find myself laughing at times but sometimes I wasn’t sure if was out of general bemusement or if events unfolding on stage were by accident or deliberate. The two-tier set is well designed making it look as though the comic strip has sprung to life. Bananaman has a good cast overall, but General Blight and Doctor Gloom steal the heroes thunder most of the time. With a few tweaks here and there, this show could possibly follow West End transitions such as The Toxic Avenger so anythings possible.

Bananaman runs until 20th January at Southwark Playhouse.


Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella ★★★★

By Rosemary Buckingham

Like a lot of Matthew Bourne’s work Cinderella, can be best described as cinematic – in every possible use of the world. The scale, the attention to detail, and the influences on the world building in the ballet would all make sense on film. It’s fitting, given that Bourne’s reimagination of the traditional fairytale is set in 1940s war-torn London, a setting that we perhaps associate most closely with wartime movies.

Bourne’s Second World War staging was first aired in 1997, before a revival in 2010 leading to this 2017 slightly re-worked reprise and it makes for an uncompromising interpretation of the famous fairytale. The best stories have always melded magic with monstrosity and Bourne’s vision upholds that fusion as goodness fights to triumph over evil.

Every element ofCinderella gets an intelligent counterpart in this adaptation. The fairy godmother becomes a pilot-esque angel, who takes Cinderella to the mid-Blitz party in a flying motorbike, while Harry the prince becomes Harry the pilot. Cinderella and the pilot look for each other amidst an air-raid siren, and they’re found in a hospital. In less capable hands, it would be easy for the story itself to get lost in its own setting, but the production never loses sight of its heart.

Design-wise this could be Lez Brotherston’s finest hour as the sets shift from monochrome domestic interiors to glittering dance hall and on to the London Underground and the Thames Embankment. The piece de resistance is Act II’s bombing of the Cafe de Paris as the set reconstructs itself, reversing the destruction like a rewinding movie and the dead rise to dance again.

Locating the elements of romantic doom within Prokofiev’s score, Bourne invokes a society dancing on the edge of a precipice. Michela Meazza vamps it up mercilessly as the Stepmother, channelling Joan Crawford through Cruella de Vil, while Ashley Shaw brings an alluring vulnerability to Cinderella whether fending off a creepy foot fetishist stepbrother or clinging in post-coital surrender to the wounded pilot Harry (the Damian Lewis-like Andrew Monaghan). Introduced by the white satin-suited fairy godfather her entrance down the staircase of the Cafe de Paris is Ginger Rogers/Eleanor Parker glamorous. Evocative, spectacular and very, very loud, this is Bourne at his most Barnum-like.

Who would think that by removing nearly every bit of unreality from this story Bourne would create something more universal than what he started with? It’s not perfect, but it’s a good night of theatre, and my guess is that as aCinderella, I’ll be thinking of this story much longer than any version with gawping comedy stepsisters stomping around on the stage and making a spectacle of themselves, because it’s not, after all, their story; it’s hers.

The company is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with a high production values Cinderella. After Sadler’s Wells it tours the country till the middle of next year.

Until January 27



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