HR Haitch has a real energy to it and a lot of talent in the cast, but the framework of its setting, neither pure frothy romp, nor serious drama, means that it never quite catches fire in either half.
This musical, dramatising the match between a prince and a commoner, is nothing if not topical. However, it rarely rises above the sum of its miscellaneous parts, in large measure because those responsible cannot really decide what kind of show it ultimately is. Is it a reworking of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, in which a girl from humble background makes good through education, and gives her betters a lesson or two? Is it a harmlessly crude Carry On caper? Is it a satire of British attitudes to class and the royal family, taking aim at present or at least recent events? By sliding uneasily between all these genres this musical ends up representing nothing so much as the vintage cartoon puppetry of Spitting Image, combining an impressive precision of caricature with a disappointing poverty of wit and invention.
In a particularly weak and over-extended first half writer Maz Evans and composer Luke Bateman introduce us to a cast of six, with some doubling up of roles. The story works itself out on two tiers, literally rendered in Justin Williams’ split-level set. Below is a spit-and-sawdust pub in Barking run by widower Brian (Christopher Lyne), his raucous man-eating mother Vera (Andrea Miller), and his eligible, if naïve, daughter Chelsea (Tori Allen-Martin), with louche visits from ne’er-do-well relative Uncle Vernon (Prince Plockey).
Up above is a squiffily skewed version of our Royal Family, with Miller portraying a dragon of a Queen Mary, Lyne returning as a down-trodden Prince Richard, and Emily Jane Kerr providing pantomime villainy as the scheming Princess Victoria. Straddling the two worlds is Nathan, Prince Plockey once more, Britain’s first black prime minister, and all accompanied genially by Oli George Rew at the pub piano.
These worlds collide through the gormless agency of Prince Bertie, a charmful Christian James, who for reasons never explained has been living incognito for most of his life and has met up with Chelsea at catering college. It is his relationship with Chelsea that is meant to provide much of the dramatic dynamic of the evening, just as his determination not to give her up propels her to a palace make-over, and him towards the throne. However, again for no obvious beneficial reason, events are set in 2011, rather than the present day, which blunts the edge of much of the humour.
The best of the evening is found in some of the acting, in Daniel Winder’s busy direction, which covers over several thin patches in text and action, and in Evans’ lyrics, which are often snappy and incisive in a way that sadly her book is mostly not. Long-running gags of various kinds are very tiresome, failing to raise any reaction at all by the end, and there is too much exposition where it is not needed, and not enough in other places. Above all, very few of the song emerge naturally from the context of the scene and fabric of the writing, an essential ingredient of any successful musical.
Luke Bateman’s music is more efficient than melodically memorable, but a few of the fifteen numbers are well worked through and could stand alone: ‘Spare to the heir’ is probably the strongest in construction, giving Kerr a great opportunity to enjoy an ‘Evita-moment’ of heroic villainy; and the wistful ‘Tomorrow – who knows?’ helps the plot turn a number of emotional corners for several characters.
Broadly speaking identity, or the lack of it, is the quest for most of the characters. Only Granny Vera/Queen Mary has a strong sense of who she is, while the rest remain in search of who they are or suffer criticism of the identity they project. Within the comic limits applied here those actors who succeed best are the ones to articulate those conflicts with intensity and good timing. Kerr and Lyne are particularly good in this regard: you get a very good sense of Princess Victoria’s resentment at her exclusion from power by virtue of her gender; and Lyne’s writhing frustration at the limits placed on both his characters is well depicted.
Miller has a great time playing two harridans that cannot be too over the top and are guaranteed audience response: her comic timing is impeccable though and therefore succeeds in milking the laughs and sympathy to the full. Prince Plockey has more fun in filling out the details of the disreputable Uncle Vernon, than with the prime minister, which is oddly a rather underwritten role.
Both the two principals are fine performers. Allen-Martin is well known already, but is not stretched vocally in this show, which is surprising given her very fine vocal skills. She has charisma and charm and makes the most of what her role has to offer. James has the most to do of all and acquits himself very capably – dealing with a tricky mash-up number that could easily go off the rails, and also switching between light debonair charm and affable twit with comic skill. They clearly have a good rapport with each other and respond – as do all the cast – to the demands of the sympathetic choreography by Lily Howkins.
This show has a real energy to it and a lot of talent in the cast, but the framework of its setting, neither pure frothy romp, nor serious drama, means that it never quite catches fire in either half. Just when you have a number which really deserves applause you find it is followed by another flat patch of grindingly obvious humour of situation that could be omitted to advantage. While the show has grown clearly from its original workshopped origins, it needs further tightening and better dialogue, perhaps in collaboration with a music theatre dramaturg, before it can progress further.