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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre Winter 2018-2019

This play and production work so hard to impress you that they just might alienate you instead. But stop resisting and just let yourself be carried along, and you'll find much to appreciate and enjoy. 

Written (book, music and lyrics) by Anais Mitchell and developed from its original incarnation as a concept album with director Rachel Chavkin, and brought almost bodily from previous runs in the USA and Canada, Hadestown is the Orpheus-Eurydice story (She is tempted into Hell, he has to rescue her) in modern dress. 

The Underworld is a company town somewhere in the American South, with Hades as mayor, political boss and owner of the oppressive factory, Persephone as his bored wife, the Fates as local gossips, and both Eurydice and Orpheus as guileless youths. The frame is a kind of honkytonk jazz club with Hermes as host and narrator. 

Eurydice is lured by Hades' seductive promises and Orpheus, encouraged by a sympathetic Persephone, must win her back by using his music to remind Hades of the value and power of love. 

The whole is told through a cycle of songs with country, folk and jazz overtones; through choreography by David Neumann, largely involving the chorus of Hades' oppressed workers; and by considerable employment of the Olivier's rising, falling and turning stage machinery. 

Though not always particularly memorable in themselves, the songs have a cumulative effectiveness in giving the story operatic weight and in defining the characters. 

Patrick Page's growling basso establishes Hades' authority, power and dangerousness, while Amber Gray as Persephone frequently steals her scenes with sex-saturated blues numbers that make it clear she is her own woman. 

Hermes' narrative songs have a knowing quality that hints at the darkest tones the story will eventually take, and Andre De Shields sings them with just enough of a hint of false show-biz cheeriness to make them seem particularly sinister. 

Almost predictably, the romantic leads are the blandest characterisations, given the most conventional and anodyne songs.

Eva Noblezada captures the innocence and vulnerability of a Eurydice always completely out of her depth, but Reeve Carney can't really do much with an Orpheus written as little more than a generic college kid with a guitar. 

Hadestown is not quite as original and innovative as it thinks it is, and one thing that could get in the way of your enjoyment is the temptation to footnote influences or previously-encountered versions of one effect or another. 

Mitchell's songs occasionally hint at Jim Steinman (by which I suppose I mean they're grandiose – though, like Steinman, she generally pulls it off), while David Neumann's choreography recalls the assertive masculinity of Tap Dogs. 

But Hadestown's strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses, and the conscious decision to ignore the latter is not difficult to make, and is well rewarded.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Hadestown - National Theatre 2018