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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nick Curtis

Hadestown at the Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue review: the catchy score is let down by a meandering, confusing show

Anaïs Mitchell’s folk-rock updating of the Orpheus myth inspires feverish devotion in a substantial swathe of the musical theatre audience. Personally, I don’t get it. The writer-composer’s score is catchy and eclectic but often bombastic, her lyrics pretentious or nonsensical.

The book turns a 20-minute story into a meandering, confused two hours, that somehow anticipated Donald Trump’s political rise 10 years before it happened. In Hadestown, a plutocratic God of the Underworld builds a wall to simultaneously keep people in and out of his realm.

Every time this wall is mentioned – it’s the subject of the Act I curtain-closer and crops up a lot – the blatant illogic smacks you in the face and snaps you out of the action. Well, it does me.

Director Rachel Chavkin, who helmed the play off and on Broadway and at the National Theatre in 2018, invests this West End production with po-faced solemnity. Rachel Hauck’s set recalls a New Orleans bar-room with a tight eight-strong band onstage, a balcony above, and costumes by Michael Krass that riff on both the Old West and the Depression. The choreography, by David Neumann, is sketchy at best.

Admirably and successfully, Chavkin casts relative newcomers as the romantic leads. Dónal Finn has an almost ecstatic falsetto as Orpheus, the ‘poor boy’ with a musical gift. Grace Hodgett Young, fresh from her arresting professional debut in Sunset Boulevard, is robust and gutsy as northern-accented runaway Eurydice.

Grace Hodgett Young, Melanie La Barrie and Donal Finn in Hadestown (Marc Brenner)

Older hands Zachary James and Gloria Onitiri have the singing chops as Hades and his part-time Queen Persephone, with his tar-pit bass growl an essential component of the experience. Acting-wise they’re reduced to a pantomime repertoire of sneers and scowls. Melanie La Barrie’s patois-accented Hermes, silver-suited like a riverboat gambler, swaggeringly narrates as if the whole show is about her.

Mitchell’s score pulls in influences from jazz, blues, spirituals and country: the bouncy Livin’ It Up On Top, the soulful All I’ve Ever Known and Wait for Me and yes, even the martial Why We Build the Wall are strong, standout tunes. But the endless reprises start to drag and, oh dear, the words within and in between the songs can be dire.

The sun “burns like a fire in the pit of the sky”, grumbles Hades. “If all you got is your own two legs, you best be glad you got ‘em,” cautions Hermes, bewilderingly. When Orpheus arrives to save her from Hades, Eurydice asks: “How did you get here? On the train?” His reply? “No, I walked. A long way.”

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end happily for Orpheus and Eurydice because of his lack of trust. Theirs is a sad song, Hermes tells us, but it’s sung anyway. In fact, she adds, as the cast prepare to lap up the breathless whoops at the curtain call, they’re going to sing it “again and again”. Please, I muttered under my breath – don’t.

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