REVIEW: Hadestown, Lyric Theatre London ✭✭✭✭

Tim Hochstrasser reviews Hadestown, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical which is now playing at the Lyric Theatre, West End.

Donal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young. Photo: Marc Brenner

4 Stars
21 February 2024
Lyric Theatre
Book Tickets

‘Hadestown’ finally comes to the West End after a hugely successful and garlanded run on Broadway, and a pre-pandemic outing at the National Theatre back in 2018. While there has never been any doubt about the high-quality production values in each iteration, critics remain divided about the overall coherence of the show, and that largely remains the case.

Zachary James and the Company. Photo: Marc Brenner

The plot combines the two major Greek myths of the Underworld – the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the marriage of Hades with Persephone. This is then overlaid with modern overtones, stressing climate change, poverty, unregulated capitalism and a critique of Trumpian cultural politics, though these are flimsy grafts. The setting suggests a New Orleans speakeasy during Prohibition, an impression reinforced by the primarily jazz idiom of the music.

The company of Hadestown. Photo: Marc Brenner

You have to recognise the achievement and ambition of Anaïs Mitchell in taking the concept and running with it through development over the best part of twenty years. The final product has grown exceptionally from its plucky amateur origins in Vermont, and within it are some truly fine numbers with snappy lyrics and memorable melodies. However, there remain a couple of problems that are never fully overcome. Combining two major Greek myths in one show leads ultimately to short-changing the dramatic development of both and – linked to that – the unravelling involves a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, especially in an overlong first half that makes the show feel at times like an album rather than an integrated drama.

Allie Daniel, Bella Brown and Madeline Charlemagne. Photo: Marc Brenner

However, let’s highlight the positives. This is a crack cast and creative team without any weak links. Just as in opera, there are so many ways in musical theatre in which one flawed area of execution can easily undermine the whole; but that does not apply here. Director Rachel Chavkin takes the challenge presented by the small stage of the Lyric Theatre and delivers a show full of continuous, imaginative use of movement and action on several levels. The set by Rachel Hauck places the uniformly excellent band on either side of tiered steps leading up to a balcony, with the main stage focused around a three-part revolve which in turn sinks down below stage. So, while the numbers in the cast and chorus are limited there is a continuous buzz and flow of characters and emotions and dynamics that always remain lucid and transparent.

The company of Hadestown. Photo: Marc Brenner

The foundation of the singing and dancing rests upon the skills of two choruses, who are expert here in both collective emphasis and individual characterisations. The larger group of five begin as guests in the speakeasy and then as we go down to Hadestown they become begrimed factory workers, whose growth into self-consciousness we get to witness. Alongside them are a sassy set of Fates, three women who commentate archly on the action, roles taken with panache by Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel.

Coordinating the action is Melanie La Barrie, as Hermes, strutting her stuff in a wonderfully sparkly silver suit. This is much more than a narrator’s role – she supplies plenty of warmth and belt in keeping the sometimes diffuse materials broadly on track. In the role of Hades, the magnetic regal baddie, Zachary James has a natural authority in demeanour and gravelly voice that ensures his numbers come across with maximum impact. He is expertly matched by Gloria Onitori as Persephone. Her voice is a magnificent instrument capable of megawattage and delicate shading, as needed, in a role where frustration at confinement is the dominant emotion which is hard to keep dramatically intriguing.

Gloria Ontiri. Photo: Marc Brenner

Orpheus and Eurydice are somewhat underwritten roles and suffer most from the fact that this is a through-sung show with no dialogue sections to build character and explain motives. But Dónal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young take all their vocal opportunities with flair and well projected feeling. Finn also plays guitar skilfully as a substitute for Orpheus’ lyre. He complements a superb band of seven soloists who work up a storm in the big numbers while each having solo spots to display their playing chops. Tarek Merchant directs from the keyboard.

So the show leaves a mixed impression overall. In delivery this is a five-star production that deserved the acclaim of sometimes tiresomely noisy press night audience. However, the show itself never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts. Like Orpheus himself, it never entirely escapes from the mental loop of its own intricacies.

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