Opening just in time for the latest royal wedding is Maz Evans & Luke Bateman’s new musical H.R.Haitch. It was initially written and performed in concert form as part of a showcase in 2015, stemming from Iris Theatre’s Workin Progress scheme, but has now been reimagined and turned into a full-length theatrical production. The Union Theatre is the host of this show that looks at class, politics & patriotism, in a fictionalised version of an otherwise familiar world.
It is 2011, the Median Party has knocked the coalition out of power, and Queen Mary is on the throne – much to the chagrin of her eternally-waiting heir Prince Richard. The Royal Family is also about reveal Richard’s son, Prince Albert, who has been kept completely hidden from public life for the past 20 years. In that time, Bertie has been to catering college and fallen in love with East Ender Chelsea Taylor, a straight-talking republican whose family pub (The Dog and Duck) is under threat of closure as the area is gentrified. Needless to say, the revelation of Bertie’s true identity comes as something of a shock to Chelsea, and she’s forced to confront her views on the institution, as well as face a difficult choice between love & family.
There are definite pluses and minuses to this show. On the upside, it is as irreverent as hell – thankfully not completely gushing over the concept of the Royal Family, instead making one of the protagonists vocally against the whole thing, as well as making the Queen’s language as blue as her blood. The surprise of her unabashed vulgarity provides most of the laughter, closely followed by Chelsea’s series of ‘Chelfies’ (variously themed selfies, displayed on the screen). However, these same ideas get constantly reused & rehashed, suggesting a lack of ideas on the humour front; there are several tropes that become very tired even by the interval (we get it: you like Uber). As it’s set in 2011, Evans takes full advantage of being able to make statements with the benefit of hindsight – again, they completely overdo it in search of cheap laughs, though not managing to maintain the audience’s enthusiasm after early iterations.
Really the issue is that it’s too long; if it were more compact then there wouldn’t be such repetition. One way to help this would be to cut some of the songs – just because it’s a musical doesn’t mean every character needs a solo number, and scenes don’t need to be book-ended with ditties. It slows the pace, affects the storytelling, and (when the sole accompaniment is a piano) start to blend into one after a while. All that being said, what could easily be a complete cringe-fest from start to finish manages to maintain an element of fun, and is most definitely not something to take too seriously.
The set design from Justin Williams & Jonny Rust completely transforms the Union auditorium into an East End boozer, as well as an area off to the side and upstairs that passes for palace rooms. It’s remarkable how much detail has been crammed into one space, lovingly bringing the world of H.R.Haitch to life. The pub set even includes a TV screen, on which we see snippets of their own news and daytime TV footage (Serra Erkli) – this is quite an ambitious move (I know how unreliable AV systems can be!), but it really adds an extra little something to make the show stand out from the crowd.
What manages to save the show from its potentially cringey fate are a pair of brilliantly fun lead performances. Christian James plays Bertie’s widely commented on stupidity with an endearing naïvety, keeping a straight face as things around him become ever more ridiculous (and the Adele references become ever more obscure). Tori Allen-Martin’s voice is stunning and she has plenty of opportunities to show it off, with a range of ballads & more upbeat numbers. She makes Chelsea incredibly likeable and is full of sass – her little asides feel like they’re completely off the cuff and provide some genuinely funny moments.
My verdict? A slightly repetitive, but not unenjoyable, new musical that’s come at the right time for Royal Wedding Fever – one to have a giggle at but not take too seriously.
H.R.Haitch runs at the Union Theatre until 2 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.