London Theater Reviews: ‘Hamilton’ Rounds Off a Year When London Theater Embraced the New

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At once sexier and more dangerous than Mr. Miranda in the part he premiered nearly three years ago, this 25-year-old newcomer feels entirely at home both with the restless, forward-driving beat of the show and with lyrics whose demands are not far-off those posed by classical verse. For once, I found myself wondering what “Hamilton” might look like presented in repertory with one of the Shakespeare history plays that are its literary kin.

Politically, too, a musical that has become a rallying point stateside for a more expansive America would appear to speak no less directly to a West End public that the other night cheered various pro-immigrant remarks with their own spontaneous fervor: two countries divided, as “Hamilton” reminds us, by revolution but conjoined in this instance by art.

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Joe Idris-Roberts as Pinocchio and Audrey Brisson as Jiminy Cricket in “Pinocchio.” Credit Manuel Harlan

The ability of “Hamilton” to galvanize the London theater owes something to a theater culture whose own original musicals lately seem to be marking time. Certainly “Pinocchio,” at the National Theater through April 10 and presented by arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions, ought to be considerably more involving than it is.

At the helm is John Tiffany, the Tony-winning director of that low-key gem of a musical, “Once,” who will be represented anew on Broadway starting in March with the American premiere of the blockbuster play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” The show’s designer is Mr. Tiffany’s frequent collaborator, Bob Crowley, whose vibrant visual imagining of post-WWII Paris in “An American in Paris” was splendid to behold on both sides of the Atlantic. (That production closes at London’s Dominion Theater on January 6.)

But “Pinocchio” never achieves liftoff, however imposing the mammoth stage puppets codesigned by Mr. Crowley and puppetry director Toby Olié. It doesn’t help that the source material, the Disney film from 1940, runs less than 90 minutes, thereby requiring the stage version to pad the slenderest of stories to fill an attenuated two-and-a-half hours, including intermission. And for all that the movie offered up such time-tested standards as “Give A Little Whistle” and “When You Wish Up A Star,” its newfound iteration feels curiously lacking in music: A wiser approach might have fleshed out the celluloid source with some original tunes, as Disney did when it brought “Mary Poppins” to the stage over a decade ago.

What we get instead are endless reprises of a handful of songs interspersed with much dispiriting moralizing about the need to feel pain. And when that wooden puppet who craves human feeling — Pinocchio’s flesh-and-blood self is ably played by the nimble Joe Idris-Roberts — lands in the grim confines of the inaptly named Pleasure Island, the audience can’t help but feel that the title character’s pathway toward self-discovery has been derailed along the way.

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Mammoth stage puppets designed by Bob Crowley and Toby Olié fail to breath life into “Pinocchio.” Credit Manuel Harlan

This year saw other “Hamilton”-style successes here in London: top-rank original work in a city that more often excels at the classics. Redefinitions of canonical mainstays weren’t as abundant as usual, however fully Conleth Hill’s softly spoken but scarily intense George fired up the director James Macdonald’s West End revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. Tamsin Greig, too, was both funny and wrenching as a female Malvolio — here renamed Malvolia — in Simon Godwin’s bewitching National Theater take on that Shakespearean favorite, “Twelfth Night.”

Back in the land of the new, I won’t quickly forget the energizing jolt of two Almeida Theater premieres, “Ink” and “Albion” — the first a contemporary morality play from the prolific James Graham disguised as a history lesson about the rise of a then-young Rupert Murdoch; the second a Brexit-era, Chekhov-inflected excavation of British mores courtesy playwright Mike Bartlett. (Rupert Goold was the ace director on both.)

The Royal Court spawned a large-scale success with Jez Butterworth’s ongoing “The Ferryman,” that rare play to feature both a goose and a baby among a plentiful cast: one can only imagine the activity backstage. The same theater’s less-vaunted titles of note included most recently the American writer Julia Jarcho’s “Grimly Handsome,” a macabre fantasia that featured actors dressed as pandas adrift in a “paradise of perversions” (don’t ask).

For abiding theatrical firepower, it was difficult to beat the soul-stirring ensemble gathered by Irish writer-director Conor McPherson for “Girl From the North Country,” a play with music that thrummed to the plaintive back catalog of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. When Shirley Henderson, playing a mentally wayward wife possessed of mighty vocal heft, let rip on the line “how does it feel,” from Mr. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the answer lay in the single word: gorgeous. To paraphrase a lyric from “Hamilton,” to be in a room where such theater happens is a wonderful place to be.

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