Pros: A very British comic musical with tons of in-jokes about life in 2011, and earnest songs performed by a hard-working cast.
Cons: A few jokes are very near the mark, or repetitive to the point of losing their sparkle.
Imagine an alternate universe where an alternate but markedly similar British royal family deals with the line of succession, love between the class divide, and political wranglings: you’re in the world of H.R.Haitch. Home to proud Republican salt of the earth selfie-taker Chelsea Taylor and her partner, secret royal and charmingly posh bumbler Bertie.
Tori Allen-Martin, as Chelsea, is an excellent lead, whether she’s winning over the great and the good or spitting out a canapé. Her vocals add depth to the songs, too. Christian James, as Bertie, is well cast, but he isn’t given as much to do vocally, and a solo number featuring a mash-up of famous love songs with snappy dance moves shows he’s been underused in this respect.
The supporting cast have fun with their range of roles from both sides of the class divide, but the royal characters’ lines verge on pantomime or fringe theatre (excepting the routinely insulting Queen Mary, sounding more like Nan from The Catherine Tate Show, had she had elocution lessons and a bigger house). There are also some truly un-PC moments designed to show Queen Mary as the Prince Philip of this imagined Royal family – a point can easily be made, but I’d argue you don’t have to call the new (black) Prime Minister a “baboon” to demonstrate white privilege and ignorance.
Most of the joke-laden script is harmless fun, especially in-jokes that show how naive we all were in 2011, with no knowledge of Brad and Angelina’s divorce or David Cameron’s indiscretions with a pig. A running joke about Uber sadly wears thin after its third outing, as does the PM’s coining of various puns on the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” before Brexit was even a thing.
There’s clever use of video – via the pub TV screen – to show the impact of the royals on the wider world, including a slightly awkward youth TV show and various news reports. Intermittent ‘Chelfies’ (Chelsea’s name for her selfies) pop up on screen too. As with the Uber joke, the novelty wears off.
The stage is divided into the two different worlds of pub and palace, but it’s hard to ignore the glaring pub furnishings and their clever details when palace scenes stretch across the stage. As the pianist is trapped at the pub piano, this section can’t be blocked off to focus on the palace, and it’s hard to ignore the pub taps and bottles, whereas the minimal palace furniture and lighting fades easily into the background. Some issues with lighting and set design also make it hard to differentiate scene changes.
Writer and lyricist Maz Evans has worked hard to continually update her musical as it developed over the last few years, ensuring it kept up to date with news headlines. Though Megan Markle was on nobody’s radar when H.R.Haitch first emerged, her impending wedding will certainly boost the appeal of this musical. With this week’s tabloid reports of Thomas Markle staging paparazzi photos, the crew can only be kicking themselves they hadn’t thought of that as a plot line, too. The plot points can feel crowded at times – housing developments, pub closure, blackmail, referendum, dead parents, pensioner sex, the line of succession, political integrity, and so on – but everything does get neatly resolved at the end. However, at two hours thirty minutes (including interval), this is a long production that could have trimmed fifteen-twenty minutes of script to sharpen its focus and broaden its already wide appeal to include those who baulk at over two hours’ stage time.
Just like Saturday’s Royal Wedding coverage, H.R.Haitch will prove popular and entertaining, but sometimes drawn out and occasionally slapdash.
Author and Lyricist: Maz Evans
Musical Director: Oli George Raw
Choreographer: Lily Howkins
Composer: Luke Bateman
Director: Daniel Winder
Producers: Paul Virides (for Shrapnel Theatre), Sofi Berenger (for Iris Theatre)
Booking Until: 2 June 2018
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking Link: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/hrh.html