Vanara: The Legend – Hackney Empire, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Book: Tony Cucchiara and Michael Conley

Music: Gianluca Cucchiara

Lyrics: Andrew James Whelan

Directors: Eleesha Drennan and Adam Lenson

Actor James McAvoy recently revealed a stellar piece of advice given to him by Farscape star Claudia Black. On playing science fiction and fantasy roles, she told him “you have to believe it more than you believe good writing.” As the genre is just so bonkers at times, only a clear investment in the story will result in a performance that brings the audience into the world they want to join.

Vanara cannot be faulted for the scale of its ambition. The work encompasses mythical worlds, magic, warring tribes and huge themes of loyalty, love, loss and everything else they imply. This massive original musical covers the pivotal few days in the history of the moon-worshipping, fire-wielding Kogallisk and sun-worshipping, hunter-gatherer Pana tribes. Deadly enemies, they meet once a year to trade goods before the “long night” begins in the magical forest they both have sworn to protect. With warnings from aged mystic The Oroznah that this night will potentially last a hundred years, the refusal by the Kogallisk to share the secret of fire heightens tensions. When the heirs to the leadership of both groups fall in love, facing a future of war and betrayal, their choices determine nothing less than the fate of their entire tribes.

Soundtracked by Gianluca Cucchiara’s excitingly mixed modern and vaguely tribal sounding score, the story’s told in almost equal parts spoken word, song and Eleesha Drennan’s engrossing choreography. It’s difficult to interpret at times in large group scenes, but always has a forceful impact. Lengthy balladeering about love and fate slow us down a touch with the particular type of overwrought anguish that can only occur when stage characters experience love so intense within 30 seconds the entire course of history must change (although Kayleigh McKnight as the unlucky-in-love Sindah is a real exception with her two solos). A song about the strength of women feels totally out of place in both subject and style, a bewildering addition that serves only to take up time with some dodgy harmonising. Even with these niggles accounted for, the piece is a visual spectacular thanks to Drennan, the performers, and Libby Todd’s leather, wood and fur set and costumes.

As Claudia Black well noted, massive fantasy stories of unknown worlds and extraordinary beings ride or die with the will to make it real. The world of Vanara is tough enough to grasp without the over-emoting and over seriousness of some characters that take us out of the story and into an awareness that we’re being told, wide-eyed like a street-preacher, to believe in it. The spell is also broken, somewhat, by the fact that in these two insular, remote tribes there is a broad mix of transatlantic accents.

Vanara repays not just a suspension of belief, but the temporary acceptance of a new reality. The world they’ve created is one with complex ideas about gender roles, duty, xenophobia and class, but teasing some of these strands a little will unravel a pretty picture. It’s a big, bold, charismatic and highly-enjoyable production – best just accept it as it is.

Runs until 31 October then tours

The Reviews Hub Score

Big, bold and charismatic

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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