As a reviewer, it is rare to see a new play or musical that you instantly know will be a smash hit. It is rarer still when that show has heart, humour and a positive message from a troubled part of history for our uncertain present. It is unknown when wrapped up as a musical bathed in warmth and optimism with stunning production values. However, tonight, I was fortunate enough to witness such an event with the opening of ‘The Book Thief’ at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, undoubtedly the highlight of my theatrical year.
Based on the eponymous novel by Markus Zusak, a worldwide phenomenon upon publication in 2005, we are introduced to Liesel Meminger (Niamh Palmer alternating with Bea Glancy), a nine-year-old girl in 1930’s Germany. She is put into foster care by her mother following her communist father’s disappearance at the hands of the new Nazi regime, through her we witness the slow assimilation of Germany into a fascist, totalitarian state as war rages through Europe. Deciding fates and guiding us through the story is the Narrator (Ryan O’Donnell); he is Death, present on the stage throughout as we descend into the horror of the Holocaust.
Liesel is fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Jack Lord & Danielle Henry), working class Germans whose rough exterior masks liberal sensibilities as they endanger themselves by sheltering Max (Daniel Krikler), a young Jewish refugee. Hans teaches Liesel to read and she quickly becomes entranced by books, stealing them and borrowing them to feed her voracious appetite to learn, and ‘The Book Thief’ is born.
The background to this story is a dark, challenging and uncompromising world, but librettists Jodie Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald are wonderfully adept at demonstrating the humanity at the heart of this story; the beauty of the relationship between Hans and Liesel, her adolescent friendship with local boy Rudy (Charlie Murphy/Alfie Corbett) are enchanting to witness, but love is present between all the characters and sustains them through the trials they face. Adding light and warmth to the sympathetic book adaptation are the songs, liberally scattered through the show, Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson have succeeded in minting lyrics which both inform the narrative and express emotion that would be impossibly upsetting in any other form. They offer humour and pathos in equal measure and I defy anyone not to shed a tear during the stand out ‘Hello Stars’, offering a whole new meaning to the noun in the song’s title.
In any modern show dealing with Nazi Germany, iconography and metaphor are never going to be far from the surface. The Swastika still has the power to shock but thankfully is used sparingly here, allowing the music and lyrics to speak far more eloquently. Kander and Ebb illustrated gradual conformity in ‘Cabaret’, in the same vein Picoult and Mc Donald link the book burning behaviour of Hitler and his cronies and the illiberal attitude that pervades much of the world today. The abuse of power of words is at the centre of ‘The Book Thief’, the danger that comes from allowing words to corrupt is a message as resonant now as it was nearly a century ago. Death reminds us that Nazi Germany was made up of people just like us who allowed it to happen.
The production is brought to life by a creative team at the top of their game led by Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham, every facet of the piece is carefully considered and classically rendered. The vaulted, book lined backdrop complimented by the simple three moving door set (Good Teeth) allows the stunning choreography of Tom Jackson Greaves to weave mesmerically around the fluid staging.The lighting (Nick Farman) elicits mood to perfection and the use of puppets (Samuel Wilde) during the finale song ‘The Wordshaker’, was so effective as to reduce me to open mouthed awe.
Jack Lord brings gentle humour to his portrayal of Hans Hubermann, when juxtaposed against the acerbic Rosa their marital bickering brings excellent comic relief with Danielle Henry drawing knowing laughs from the audience during ‘Dreadful’, a litany of complaints against husbands everywhere. O’Donnell shows Death as a friendly face ‘haunted by humans’, in awe of their capacity to overcome adversity through love. Murphy portrays Charlie as a cheeky dreamer, his obsession with running – particularly his hero worship of black sprinter Jesse Owens – being slowly crushed on the wheel of conforming to fascist ideology (Look at Jesse Owens). The ensemble took on multiple roles to great effect and whether the scene was a rousing comedy (Late to the Party) or political statement (Make Germany Great Again), they conveyed the varying moods perfectly.
Particular praise is necessary for Niamh Palmer in the role of Liesel, constantly at the centre of events she demonstrated range and versatility far beyond her years, infusing her songs and performance with emotion and depth in an gorgeously authentic northern voice.
This is a stunning production with the simple message of ‘Love over Hate’ brought to life through the power of words and music. It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible and it would be a travesty if a west end transfer doesn’t swiftly follow this limited run.
An unforgettable night at the theatre that will stay with me forever. Do not miss this show. https://octagonbolton.co.uk/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 22nd September 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★