Stuart King

Review: HADESTOWN at Lyric Theatre

Winner of what now appears to be an overly generous clutch of 8 Tony Awards on Broadway, HADESTOWN by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell has finally made the leap across the pond to London's West End.

HADESTOWN, Lyric Theatre, London. Photo credit Marc BrennerHADESTOWN, Lyric Theatre. Photo credit Marc Brenner

Focusing on a journey to the underworld and back, the show seeks to combine the Greek mythical romances of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone, but theatregoers can confidently excuse themselves from swatting-up the classics before attending a performance of this musical.

The question on everyone's lips, is does this London production directed by Rachel Chavkin (which has just opened at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue), warrant the blitz of pre-opening hype which has been filtering out of New York? Certainly by the somewhat muted audience reaction at the end of the first half on opening night, the stream of beefed-up folk songs and balladry didn't seem to be landing especially well.

Dónal Finn's floated lyric tenor (think airy strumming minstrel) as Orpheus, offered little dynamism in its flaccid and drippy delivery. Meanwhile, the vocal part for his beloved Eurydice has been written in such a way that Grace Hodgett Young was given far too few opportunities to imbue her performance with anything approaching the lyrical beauty of which she is undoubtedly capable (and which the tragic character perhaps deserves). In the main, it would be a very reasonable observation that HADESTOWN lacks a single hummable tune. A trio of singing Fates are used to good effect to fill in the storyline gaps and have noticeably been given some of the best harmonies (in a show which is hardly awash with romantic scoring). Elsewhere, Zachary James as Hades has little to do apart from parade about being tall and stern whilst his long-suffering better-half Persephone played by Gloria Onitiri, is largely depicted as a bored wife who has a problem with alcohol — presumably stemming from the 6 monthly periods of stifling subterranean stupor during which she has learned to keep a stash of hip-flasks at the ready. Diminutive-yet-full-throated Melanie La Barrie grabs every opportunity to hold the spotlight in her gender-bending, silver-suited, narrator role of Hermes and earned the most notable cheer at the curtain call on press night.

In some ways the production suffers from being overly busy. The tight central stage revolve is used to excess — reducing any sense of surprise or indeed set-piece novelty. The onstage band are encouraged to be animated and are occasionally introduced during the performance as though we're attending a gig or concert. The production could also benefit enormously by losing 20mins of the running time (due to the excessively self-indulgent ending).

Ultimately, tonight's effort felt like a scruffy work in progress which hasn't yet decided what it is aiming to be, rather than a hugely successful and much-anticipated Broadway transfer. Interestingly, one of theatre's often unsung technical heroes - the lighting designer - in this case Bradley King, knew precisely when to keep things low key and when to add some really impactful drama. This demonstrably helped bolster the visuals, especially towards the end of the first act.