H.R.Haitch, a ‘new’ musical comedy from Iris Theatre’s Workin Process scheme three years in the making, has found a fitting home at Union Theatre. The setting is far from the working-class pub in Barking home to half the characters, but a lot closer to that of the other half: Buckingham Palace. Two families are brought together by way of love – of course – and while cultures clash, the guaranteed laughs the situation creates are marshalled with real efficiency.
Justin Williams’ set delivers us the pub in near entire form, placing the pianist behind the bar, examples of fake banknotes pinned to the wall and a TV to dispense exposition periodically. Buckingham Palace is more gestured at (a wise move), but Maddy Ross-Masson’s costume design and the royals’ frequent grandstanding high above the stage differentiate cleanly which role the small cast plays at any point.
And the musical chops of every one of this cast are on full display here, in relatively close quarters to the audience. Most of the jokes, sung or spoken, land; the music is charming and fun, with some great moments – ‘Spare the Heir’ in particular deserves to be heard in a form with more instrumentation behind it. Christian James’ Prince Albert is the platonic ideal of a posh fool; Andrea Miller and Emily Jane Kerr are in wonderful voice; Prince Pockley is by turns solemn and rogue-ish as the Prime Minister or Chelsea’s uncle, and Christopher Lyne switches with the utmost dexterity from Chelsea’s dad to a red-faced ‘Prince Richard’.
Besides its current prescience (could there be a better week to open?), H.R.Haitch simultaneously feels as if it has one foot firmly in the rather recent past. Besides a welcome Wakanda nod, the vast majority of the jokes and references here are down extremely well-trodden paths, either ironically referencing events yet to happen to these characters in their version of 2012, or simply retelling the jokes of others. This includes appearances from a “Bear with!” quote from Miranda, of all things, alongside a reminder of #susanalbumparty, and a number of outdated references to things perhaps relevant at the time H.R.Haitch was initially developed, such as Joey Essex, or calling emojis “emoticons”.
For all Chelsea’s anti-monarchist progressivism, brought out suddenly and only for a few scenes, this isn’t meant to be a political or subversive beast. Somewhere there might exist a version of this musical, still funny and sharp, which takes more than a glance at the race and class of its characters. There are also several entirely unnecessary transmisogynist jokes (did you know ‘tranny’ is a slur which is going to make certain members of your audience uncomfortable?) which might have easily been avoided, and seem, once again, to slightly date the piece.
But the best till last: Tori Allen-Martin as Chelsea, rightfully at the centre of all this, is a constant delight. Both her voice and her command of clear, hilarious facial expressions which succeed each other so quickly make the character of Chelsea lovable. May she come to dominate the game.
H.R.Haitch is playing at The Union Theatre until 2 June
Photo: Nick Rutter