Hadestown by Anais Mitchell, at the South Bank Centre until January 26.
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**** (Four stars)
Review by Christopher Walker
When Andrew Lloyd-Webber first conquered the London stage, he did so with the introduction of a new art form. What he called “Rock Opera”.
This, he argued was a step above the average musical, combining all the fun and lightness of touch found in that art form, with something of the more complex storytelling and musical experimentation found in Opera. The National Theatre’s production of Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, directed by Rachel Chavkin, is very much in this tradition. And although they
both prefer to use the term “folk opera”, it certainly does that tradition proud.
It is a production bursting with vitality, with a cast of singers and dancers as diverse as London itself.
The plot is loosely based on the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and his trip into the underworld, but fear not. Thanks to some snazzy New York writing from Anais Mitchell this is not in the least bit stuffy. In fact the action begins in what feels like a New Orleans jazz nightclub, with Hermes, the wonderful Andre de Shields, acting as some kind of MC. He takes the audience in his hand and keeps it there for the duration of the performance, guiding us through this vibrant re-telling of the classical tale.
There is a lot of fun had on stage by a cast which is universally strong. Orpheus, played by Reeve Carney looks like a down-and-out, wondering mariachi. Dressed as something of a seventies throwback (like this piece itself), Reeve sings and plays well. I just wish he had better songs. Anyway, he’s hard up and so is his new girlfriend Eurydice. We follow their love story as they wander down to “Hadestown” which is run by Mr. Hades himself – an absolutely brilliant Patrick Page, camping it up, in pantomime villain tradition.
Mr. Hades is definitely not short of money. Mitchell has him establishing some kind of factory/mining operation which is a crude amalgam of all of the evils of capitalism. This show has a few not-so-subtle messages. Although we have to remind ourselves that what seems like the highly topical song “Why we build the Wall,” was in fact written several years before Trump came to power.
Unlike Orpheus, Hades has some very good music, including the haunting “Hey Little Songbird, sing me a song,” which is growled out in a Dalek-like rasp. I found myself humming it on the way home.
The uneven quality of the songs is the sole issue in this show. The piece was begun in 2010, and to some extent still feels like a work in progress. A more commercially minded producer would have over-ruled author and director, and would probably have cut at least three, maybe four, of the songs.
This really would be a case where less would mean more. Still, director Rachel Chavkin has pulled an absolutely wonderful evening’s entertainment together. And she brings us some (apolitical) lightness from Mr. Hades (six monthly wife) Persephone, played as a wickedly lovable “party girl” by Amber Gray. Her final song without the backing of the band is quite fabulous. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
This is well worth the trip to the South Bank, and Anais Mitchell is clearly a great talent. Could she be another Andrew Lloyd-Webber?