Libretto: Jodi Picoult & Timothy Allen McDonald
Music & Lyrics: Elyssa Samsel & Kate Anderson
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Regional theatre has had some enormous successes in recent years. The transfer of The Life of Pie to the West End and the stratospheric capitulation of Everyone’s Talking About Jamie (both originating from Sheffield Theatres) is testament to how the regions punch way above their weight artistically. The Octagon Theatre in Bolton have managed a coup in securing the rights to adapt the enormously popular 2005 novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and present its world stage premiere as a musical.
This is an ambitious project. Years in development and postponed by a pandemic, The Octagon Theatre, under artistic director Lotte Wakeham, have assembled a superlative cohort of cast and creatives to breathe life (or perhaps more aptly death) into this production. For those familiar with the book or the 2013 film an intriguing characteristic is the viewpoint of how the story is told. ‘Death’ is personified as the narrator and leads us into the lives of the characters, recounting in past tense, entwining their lives and stories. It is a device that works exceptionally well in this adaptation as Ryan O’Donnell weaves in and out of the action, occasionally embodying minor characters, often passing a prop and always steering us through the lives of those who live in the town.
Young girl Liesel Meminger (Naimh Palmer) arrives at the door of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Jack Lord and Danielle Henry). Her younger brother has died on the journey and one of her few possessions is a book she stole at her sibling’s funeral entitled The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Initially illiterate she is taught to read by her new papa, discovering the wonder of language and the power of words. Markus Zusak’s work is about the German population who may have publicly shown sympathy to Hitler and the Nazi Party through fear but privately have non-extreme views. The family harbour a Jew, Max Vandeburg (Daniel Krikler), in their basement. Liesel’s new friend, Rudy (Charlie Murphy), may be the cream of the crop in the Hitler youth but also idolises Jesse Owens. Although a story about a community’s struggle throughout the war years it is an examination into the power of language and how words can be the greatest weapon despite the might of the far right and the entire German military.
Wakeham and the creatives have produced an exceptionally well executed show. It feels like a truly ensemble piece of theatre on and off the stage. The sparse set design lends itself to here and everywhere, wonderfully complemented by Nic Farman claustrophobic lighting design. Tom Jackson Greaves’ movement keeps the large cast in pleasing metronomic precision and Wakeham allows the story flowing from scene to scene with minimal fuss. The cast are excellent with special mention to the young Palmer and Murphy as Liesel and Rudy. Parents Hans and Rosa may have choice words for each other and their neighbours but they have big hearts. It is a recurring theme in the show – that love will always triumph over hate and that kindness will always smother cruelty. To this end, it is an extremely uplifting piece of theatre.
Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson have a difficult task. A musical with such heavy subject matter will always be a challenge. They succeed in the main, bringing light and shade to the score. Hello Stars is poignant and delicate and reprised by many of the cast. It ties the piece together nicely. Late to the Party, about finally joining the Nazi Party, is a drunken romp and Rosa’s Dreadful, a description of her husband, keeps the heavy weight in the air. There is poetry and philosophy in the lyrics but its gentle nature often makes way for temperate when a tempest may be more fitting. The musical theatre genre has shifted so much in the last decade that well executed but ‘traditional’ new scores may get lost in the melee.
There is an incredible amount of beauty in this show. It has an enormous heart and values that, unfortunately, seem as pertinent as ever in a world where history has a cyclical nature but leaves you with renewed strength and hope.
Runs until 15 October 2022