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Review: Vanara (Hackney Empire)

London has much more to offer than just the West End - often venturing further afield gives you the opportunity to discover new works and, who knows, it might just be the next big thing? The beautiful Hackney Empire this week plays host to a brand new musical for a limited time - Vanara.

A story of two battling tribes, Vanara immediately feels reminiscent of the movie Avatar, mostly thanks to its distinctive imagery which manages to be both unique yet familiar. Throughout the show members of the tribe fight, fall in love and try to find ways to live both together and apart. A story of love and sacrifice, the alien setting of the piece tries to disguise this is something we have seen many a time before - essentially Romeo & Juliet meets West Side Story in a strange world.

A fairly grand stage sparsely laid out evokes the theme of the setting though you do sense more could have been done to make the sets more interesting, though anything with a revolve automatically gets a tick point. Choreography from Eleesha Drennan provides interesting movement from the cast on stage. Inconsistent at times, at its best it is simply stunning. A huge highlight is the elaborate hair and makeup design from Lisa Farrall, transforming the cast members into rather unique looks. Clunky dialogue often threatens to kill the momentum of the show, which definitely could use a trim - but these are redeemed by some killer songs.

The music from Gianluca Cucchiara was previously released as a cast album, albeit with a different cast than those performing this run. One of the standout tracks is the beautiful 'How Do I Open His Eyes' sung by Kayleigh McKnight - a total showstopper in every sense of the word, it showed the true potential this material could have. Other highlights include 'The Man She Once Saw In Me' and 'Prayer To The Moon' - soaring solos that reach massive highs. However, these are joined by far more forgettable group numbers which fail to achieve the same level of brilliance.

What really elevates Vanara is its stellar cast. Jacob Fowler makes his professional theatre debut, having recently been part of the boyband that won Little Mix show The Search, as Mohr, displaying huge charisma and a gorgeous voice. Emily Bautista is an undeniable standout as Ayla, with vocals for days and fantastic acting ability, she is potentially the best thing about this musical. Joaquin Pedro Valdes shows off his remarkable talents, having just finished the West End run of Heathers while Carole Stennett and Cavin Cornwall have amazing chemistry as Tonah and Chrohm.

While the cast may be great and some of the songs simply fantastic, this is a show that fails to deliver the promised standard. An overlong story with too many inconsistent moments kills any momentum the highlights achieve and leave the audience struggling to follow. Moments also feel deeply unoriginal, with one scene mirroring 'As Long As You're Mine' from Wicked far too closely to be coincidental, while Johnnie Fiori, wonderful as she is, plays a character called The Oroznah, who feels like a carbon copy of Rafiki from The Lion King with elements of Old Deuteronomy from Cats mixed in for good measure.

The show constantly refers to "The long night" - it felt like they were referring to the show itself as that is just what I experienced watching this. Ultimately, Vanara feels like a show with huge potential - sadly, it just hasn't found it just yet. Some brilliant creatives are involved with this, with an impressive track record between them - they just may need to put their heads together to tighten this one up. Certain elements stop the show being a disaster and definitely worthy of a watch, if only to witness some incredible cast members perform some fabulous numbers. Perhaps this will be one to watch for the future (though hopefully not a post apocalyptic one) - if they can get it right, they could find themselves with a hit on their hands.


Vanara plays at the Hackney Empire until October 31st. Tickets from



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