Review by Daz Gale
We seem to be living in a time when more and more musicals are being made based on existing well-loved stories, be it movies or novels. So how do you stand out from the crowd when a new one is announced every day? In the case of The Book Thief, they have gone for a slow burn approach. No bells and whistles here, just a story with its own pre-existing fan base hoping this new musical adaptation will do justice to the story.
Written by Markus Zusak in 2006, The Book Thief became an international best-seller and was adapted into a film in 2013. The musical adaptation premiered last year in Bolton and now returns for the shortest of tours, taking in Coventry and Leicester, where I was lucky enough to catch the show. Set in Germany during World War II in 1940, it tells the story of Liesel who moves in with foster parents following a tragedy and witnesses first-hand the atrocities war brings, all the while stealing books in a bid to respond to the hate that is so prevalent.
Adapting such a well-loved novel to the stage is not without its challenges. Translating it for a whole new medium has the risk of losing the impact and not being as effective. This isn’t a problem for The Book Thief with Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald expertly handling Markus Zusak’s story with such care and consideration, you feel the passion leaping off the pages and on to the stage. Not the easiest of stories to tell, given the darkness of the themes but the writing here manages to sensitively portray an awful point in history in a way that pays tribute to those who were lost. The tone stays as light as possible initially, masking the horrors that play out mostly behind the scenes, bringing you back to a jolting stop as a well-loved character is taken away for one reason or another. You’re never far away from the next laugh though, usually at the hands of sparring Rosa Hubermann and Frau Holtzapfel. The way this shifting tone always feels effortlessly easy and never unnatural is a testament to the fantastic writing.
The writing is brought to life sensationally through inspired direction by Lotte Wakeham. Immeasurably creative in its execution, it tells the story through visual elements all tying together beautifully. From Tom Jackson Greaves’ gorgeous choreography which shines during the larger group numbers in particular to a perhaps unexpected use of puppetry designed by Sam Wilde and directed by Amy Rose creating a sense of wonder and escapism, this is a meticulously thought out production where every creative element is very clearly on the same page. A fabulously adaptable set by Good Teeth and an atmospheric lighting design by Nic Farman really elevates the words and actions of the cast to create something that is truly terrific.
Inserting music into a dark story doesn’t always pay off, at times feeling like it is diminishing the story when not told write. However, the songs here add to the storytelling with lyrics feeling like a natural extension to the tale. Sparingly inserted throughout, the music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson may be quiet at times but they don’t lack any sense of power. One especially creative aspect of the music is the way a couple of numbers are reprised multiple times, taking on a different meaning every time, in a clever piece of writing. The most obvious use of this is in standout number ‘Hello Stars’ which grows more poignant as the show progresses. Another highlight comes from the beautiful ‘Music Nonetheless’, another number that uses this creativity to return in different formats.
As is the nature in theatre, the children actors in The Book Thief are played by a rotating cast with three performers each taking on the role of Liesel and Rudy. For this performance, I was mesmerised by Tilly-Raye Bayer’s stunning take on Liesel. A truly gifted performer, she had no problem bringing all the emotion and tenderness out of a complex child whose sense of innocence threatens to be lost forever. A complex role to play, Tilly-Raye was a marvel to behold with a beautiful singing voice and an ability to make an audience fall in love with her. For this performance, Thommy Bailey-Vine played the role of Rudy Steiner in a brilliantly confident and cheeky portrayal. With a zest for life, his passion was infectious and his performance utterly fantastic, particularly in his chemistry with Tilly-Raye’s Liesel.
Mina Anwar is a comic standout as Rosa Hubermann with her no-nonsense approach creating some of the biggest laughs of the show, though with different sides to her character hidden away beneath her harsher exterior. Her husband Hans Hubermann is brilliantly portrayed by Jack Lord in a warm performance which captures most of the heart of the show. Daniel Krikler is a standout as Max Vandenburg, lighting up the stage whenever he appears in a wholesome performance masking the more tragic element to his characters journey. Though his stage time is comparatively minimal, Mark Dugdale is a standout as Rudy’s father Alex Steiner along with Purvi Parmar as Barbara, leaving me longing to see more of the Steiner family.
While this is very much Liesel’s story, the action is held together by Obioma Ugoala as the Narrator. Though his mysterious character takes on more meaning than is initially revealed, I won’t spoil the secret by stating what his significance to the story is. Obioma gives a commanding performance as he watches the action from afar, sometimes intervening or giving them a helping hand and, at other times, taking part in the action in a series of supporting roles. Having previously wowed audiences in Hamilton and Frozen, Obioma shows his versatility as an actor in an accomplished performance that piques interest and always captivates.
The themes in The Book Thief are thought-provoking and powerful. Its key message of “Write love over hate” is one that transcends decades, generations and situations to create the simplest of messages that more people should heed. The story is a testament to the power that words hold, and how some may not use them in the wisest manner. Taking such a horrific part of our history and putting a new perspective in it makes this a refreshingly unique show with subversive elements creating a sense of familiarity as we all know the history but making you think of it in a way you may never have considered before.
The Book Thief is set in 1940 but its themes are still ever so relatable today. The hatred, bigotry and intolerance that are on display in the show are still sadly prominent in today’s society. A note in the programme from the writers draws comparisons to Donald Trump’s reign of terror, but even they weren’t to know the hatred that would fall out of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s mouth this week. The show talks about the power of words, and with those awful comments still fresh in my mind, it made the message of The Book Thief ever more impactful, feeling like a crucial and disappointingly timely story. Perhaps the government should take themselves to Leicester to catch this and see if they can learn to write love over hate.
I went in to The Book Thief not knowing much about it, having not read the book or seen the film. I came out of there completely blown away, having witnesses something truly beautiful and poignant that resonated with me on a personal level. It’s safe to say this powerful musical well and truly stole my heart. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter has in store for this gorgeous show.
The Book Thief plays at Curve Leicester until 14th October. Tickets from https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/the-book-thief/
Keep an eye on www.thebookthiefmusical.com to find out what’s next for this show.