Julian Eaves reviews H R Haitch – A Right Royal Musical Comedy at the Union Theatre.
A gorgeously funny take on the old ‘Pygmalion’ story is served up for summer – and an impending royal wedding – in this romp about the Essex girl from a pub who ends up marrying the heir to the throne. First seen – by a select few – at a memorable workshop performance at the Actors’ Church back in 2015, now it comes to us extensively developed and matured in a collaboration between Iris Theatre (the original producers) and Shrapnel Theatre. Maz Evans has written book and lyrics, and packed them with a heady mix of clever political satire and devastatingly demotic banter, while Luke Bateman fills out a musical score with bright ensembles, heart-tugging sentimental ballads, and the odd ‘Crown Imperial’-type pastiche: MD is Oli George Rew, parked at the pub joanna, right in the midst of Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s splendid recreation of a Barking public hostelry (on the ground floor), with an elevated level representing the ‘palace’, and a nice staircase running up and down between the two (social) levels. Ben Jacobs lights it with unfussy ease, and Maddy Ross-Masson togs out the company in pleasantly apt costumes, mixing the grand with the garish.
Incredibly, a cast of just six carry off the entire story, led by the lush central performance of Tori Allen-Martin as Chelsea Taylor, the (widowed) publican’s daughter who has fallen for the incognito prince working as barstaff among them, Christian James’ bright and chipper Bertie (aka., Prince Albert). A whole batch of ‘new/old’ royal names are used here, with Princess Victoria (magnificently terrifying Emily Jane Kerr) as Bertie’s pushy sister (complaining that she’s just the ‘Spare to the Heir’), Prince Richard (superbly versatile Christopher Lyne) as their (widowed) dad – yes, he also plays Chelsea’s pa – and Queen Mary (the foul-mouthed monarch, and grannie to Bert and Vic, as well as double-gran Vera to our Chels). With me? In Evans’ neatly turned script, it’s all terribly clear and easy to follow. Oh, with the addition of Essex low-life Vernon/Prime Minister Nathan (the hugely likable Prince Plockey). These are the folk we get to know best.
There are also any number of interpolations on a widescreen TV (some things unit the nation!) from other actors playing various public figures in the news, or telling us the news. It is a show that has the media circus of celebrity – including the titled kind – very much under its skin. Although, the writers have chosen to place the action set seven years back in 2011. They are convinced of the wisdom of this move; however, I can’t help but feeling that nothing dates quite like political satire. The humour works magically upon us as if it were just happening now. It may be a matter of passing moment to the authors to explore exactly what people did or did not care about seven long years ago – but I just wonder if audiences will really get quite as wrapped up in it as they?
Meanwhile, on stage, Iris Artistic Director, Daniel Winder keeps things bouncing along, with some brisk but unfussy moves from choreographer Lily Howkins, who never breaks the spell of where we are supposed to find ourselves, or who these larger-than-life characters are really meant to be. The respect for ‘realism’ in the zany farce of the plot works entirely in the favour of the actors, who consistently manage to keep us ‘on side’, and going along with their sometimes jaw-droppingly daring japes. For instance, the language can be mind-bogglingly foul, but the truthfulness of the delivery, impeccably maintained, makes you listen carefully – and you will actually hear not obscenities, but instead a catalogue of naughtiness of a spell-binding linguistic virtuosity. It’s sheer delight, and the belly laughs it draws out, the cackles of wicked pleasure, more than justify its presence. This is most true of the first act, which is tightly written and cunningly crafted, focussed on the ingenious plotting of the (contemporary) fairy-tale. The second half is less rigorously constructed, with a couple of longeurs we could possibly do without: the authors are particularly attached to an interpolated Christmas song about a table; it’s long, and beautifully written, but perhaps takes us on a digression a bit too far away from the energetic drive of the main action. There is also a pot-pourri mash-up of song titles from other sources for Bertie, and this seems to sit oddly amongst the perfectly well written score that Bateman and Evans have concocted. Audiences will have to make of these elements what they will.
You will take away from the experience the warm, lovely feeling of knowing you have – vicariously – misbehaved yourself, and, like Tori Allen-Martin’s perfectly timed come-back, when asked embarrassingly impertinent questions, like, ‘Are you a virgin?’, …. leave a LONG PAUSE….. looking around all the while like an innocent babe in the wood, before replying, all wide-eyed guilelessness: ‘At what?’