Review – Hadestown, National Theatre

Friday 9 November 2018

The last time Phil remembers a subsidised Royal theatre company being used as a laboratory for a musical on its way to Broadway was when the RSC road tested Carrie. Look how that turned out

Phil trailed up to Stratford for that one and picked up a distinct tang of major stinker early in the opening number. If Hadestown (music, lyrics and book Anaïs Mitchell, developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin) turned out to be more musical theatre hell producing sulphurous pongs at least he only had to travel as far as the National Theatre.

Happily, things are much more fragrant on the South Bank. Proceedings kick off with the incredibly charismatic André De Shields as Hermes, God of the Queen’s Head Squares, a narrator cum Cab Calloway-esque master of ceremonies who elicited and encouraged some very un-National Theatre whooping from his very appearance. Is there something we don’t know about? Research reveals his polymathic tendencies as a twice Tony-nominated actor who is also listed as singer, director, dancer, novelist, lyricist, composer, choreographer (including two Bette Midler shows) and a professor to boot. Phew. We needed a lie down just thinking about all that.

Based on the Greek myth Orpheus (Reeve Carney who survived playing Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway and is also great nephew of Art Carney) is seen here as a guitar-strumming youth who is forced to exercise considerable trust and patience to rescue his fiancé, Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), from an industrial underworld. Phil has only a smattering of Greek-mythery but even he eventually twigged it’s the “don’t look behind you!” story. A clever reversal of the panto custom for the festive season.

The show – which is staged with little spoken dialogue and the stripped-down staging of a Once or a Girl From the North Country – initially feels more concert than musical so it takes a while to invest interest in the drama. That is until it stealthily drags you in. By the end Phil was so into the story he was up for a full panto shout out warning for Orpheus.

We say it’s stripped-down but there is a multi-tiered set(Rachel Hauck) which hints at New Orleans and a trio of concentric revolves with the Olivier’s drum lift exercising itself in the middle. Tension was added as Phil worried about performers falling into the gaping chasm (especially when dry ice concealed the edges) and Andrew fretting about the outer revolve as it initially passed under part of the set.

The Philip Green of the underworld (apparently no relation to knicker factory Underworld in Coronation Street) is Hades performed by Patrick Page (the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and comes with a voice so wonderfully sonorous he makes Tom Waits sound as if he’s been sucking on helium balloons.

You wait a lifetime for a musical about Hades, his wife Persephone and the underworld and you get two at once. Mythic is currently at the Charing Cross Theatre. The National’s Persephone is excellently rendered by the gloriously perky Amber Gray as are a trio of Fates (Carly Mercedes-Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) who are no slouches in the Andrews Sisters department.

There are occasional longueurs but nothing that is life-threatening and these are more than made up for by the moments which are thrilling. The music which covers country, folk, jazz and swing is sometimes toe-tappingly catchy, David Neumann‘s choreography is peppy and the sound design (take a bow Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz) is excellent even at this stage of previews. Barely a lyric was lost. The show has been in development for over a decade so we assume the rousing “Why We Build the Wall” which closes Act 1 – no prizes for guessing what that’s about – is a late addition.

The reception was rapturous with many ovating. We stayed firmly seated not wishing to spoil them for the nightly ovations they’ll receive just for being on Broadway.

The National’s website is quoting Vogue’s prediction – without directly mentioning Hamilton – that ‘Hadestown will be your next musical theatre obsession.’ We wouldn’t bet against it.





7 Responses to “Review – Hadestown, National Theatre”

  1. Stuart Says:

    Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been following the gestation of this one over a long time, and I’m looking forward to seeing this version. “Why We Build the Wall” was written in the late 2000’s and first released in 2010. People used to think it was all about Israel / Palestine, But the write Anais Mitchell has always claimed there was no specific model in mind.

  2. Billy Says:

    Whinger devotees may wish to know if the Ms. Paz credited with sound design in this typically delightful post is the same Paz who achieved immortality yonks ago by replying to a Whinger review, identifying herself as a representative of Patrick Cassidy:

    If so, she has certainly moved up in the world of mummers –

  3. Will Says:

    Hi! Why We Build The Wall has been in the show since it’s debut in 2006, just thought it was important to let you know so nobody thinks the show is trying to make political statements rather than universal ones lol

  4. sandown Says:

    The Whingers mention “Carrie” (1988) as being an occasion on which a subsidised Royal theatre company being used as a laboratory for a musical on its way to Broadway. In fact there was an earlier example in the shape of the musical “Jean Seberg” at the Olivier Theatre in 1983.

    Insiders said that both Terry Hands and Peter Hall (bosses respectively of the RSC and the NT at the time) were furiously jealous at the amount of money that Trevor Nunn was making out of his musical transfers, and decided that the British taxpayer should finance their own pitch for the Yankee dollar.

    “Jean Seberg” was composed by Marvin Hamlisch (of “A Chorus Line”) and starred Kelly Hunter — who broke her leg in early in the run, and had to sing her part sitting on one side of the stage with one limb in plaster. Critical and audience response was so poor that the management abolished the interval, to stop people leaving at half time. But they still left anyway: “‘Scuse me…pardon me…sorry…”

    It didn’t make Broadway.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      I believe they hoped it would be an RSC Les Mis style hit but not sure it was a direct pre-Broadway Broadway run as Hadestown is. It had a very English cast including Jon Savident (Corrie’s “I say, I say” butcher Fred Elliot) as Otto Preminger.
      I saw it. Fortuitously before they edited out the chorus line of tap dancing psychotherapists.
      And yes it was diabolical. Happy days. Time for more proper stinkers. Too Close to the Sun must be almost due a revival surely?

  5. Chris Voisey Says:

    Bearing in mind some of the musical horse shit I have endured since it’s run – and a lot of it highly praised – I look back at JEAN SEBERG with almost pleasure.- and Kelly Hunter, Josephine Blake and David Ryall’s performances in particular,,,

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