“When I think about Denmark and the way things used to be”
It’s Hamlet, but not as you know it. Originally an Edinburgh Festival hit in 2001, returning in 2010 and now developed under the auspices of the Royal & Derngate to a fully fledged hour and three quarters production, Hamlet! The Musical takes a delightfully irreverent look at this Shakespearean classic in an adaptation that is highly inventive, supremely silly and one of the funniest things I have seen this year.
Where it succeeds is in some really sharp writing, there are plenty of genuine laughs in here alongside the broader comedy, and the engagement of a highly enthusiastic and talented cast of familiar faces. Jack Shalloo’s (recently very good in The Kissing Dance) daft teenager with stars in his eyes makes a very appealing leading man and Mark Inscoe’s (huge amounts of fun in Salad Days) doubling as an Elvis-inspired ghost and a devilish Claudius were both excellently good.
But almost stealing the show are the others in the company, covering several of the smaller roles each and Jess Robinson and Gabriel Vick had me in stitches with nearly every appearance. Robinson’s feisty Ophelia is probably as good a reading of the role as I’ve ever seen, Vick’s Euro-inspired Laertes is a scream and together, their back-up ghosts and particularly their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were just inspired. This ensemble works so well together and it means that unexpected pleasures come from all angles: I’ve never laughed so much at Fortinbras as played here by David Burt and Virge Gilchrist’s boozy Gertrude’s relaying of the fate of Ophelia and Polonius to Laertes is another hilarious moment.
But for a show that is nominally so silly and clearly born out of the irreverent Edinburgh festival atmosphere, there is a genuine musical intelligence at play here that elevates this into something special (interestingly one of the writers, Alex Silverman, is responsible for the jazz makeover of the King’s Head’s Coronation of Poppea). It is through-sung but every song is an integral part of the story-telling, there really is no filler here and this allows the range of influences from which they draw inspiration from to shine through, whether it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern via Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears, the astoundingly brilliant Die Fledermousetrap which incorporates numerous famous operatic tunes or the show-stopping Act 1 closer ‘(The Question Is) To Be Or Not Be’ – a song that could seriously win Eurovision.
It isn’t absolutely perfect, close as it is: for a show that relies so much on the wit of its lyrics, there’s a few too many instances of multiple vocal lines that muddy the clarity of the words and given the vast scope of the humour, the constant recourse to Shakespearean in-jokes began to undermine just how clever so much of the comedy is here – danceoffs, deaths by giant herring and the book Regicide for Dummies notwithstanding. But these were minor quibbles in what was a hugely entertaining evening that really does combine silliness and genuine wit in the best way, complete with a score that is engaging and interesting and in the case of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’, a solid gold musical hit that will linger in the mind for days to come!