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Hadestown review: Theatrical heaven, or hell?

"Fans will love this new production, but it left me cold," writes Attitude's Simon Button

3.0 rating

By Simon Button

Cast of Hadestown perform onstage
Hadestown is performing now at the Lyric Theatre (Image: Marc Brenner)

Having a musical as defiantly unconventional as Hadestown playing right next door to the mainstream brand-recognition likes of The Time Travellers Wife makes for an interesting contrast. One is a folksy sung-through interpretation of a Greek myth, the other a more traditional book musical based on a bestseller.

They both have fanciful storylines but Hadestown is less of a crowd-pleaser, which it should be applauded for, and it has a more adventurous score. But it doesn’t stir the emotions or reframe the story of doomed lovers Eurydice and Orpheus in any kind of meaningful context. The show has something of a cult status and followers will flock to it in droves but, previously at the National Theatre and now in the West End, I still find it a curate’s egg that’s curiously uninvolving.

Cast of Hadestown perform onstage
“Hadestown is less of a crowdpleaser” (Image: Marc Brenner)

If you don’t know the myth, Greek god Hermes (played here by a terrific Melanie La Barrie with swagger and attitude to spare) serves as narrator. Struggling musician Orpheus (Dónal Finn, often slipping into a strange falsetto) is a curly-haired Romeo trying to woo the just-as-poor but more pragmatic Eurydice (Grace Hodgett Young, a stand-out in the cast). When Hades (an imposing and deep-voiced Zachary James) whisks her down to the underworld, Orpheus goes after her with tragic consequences.

Hadestown is more about the music than the story

The tragedy, though, is abruptly done away with in a show that favours bombast over narrative. Originally done by composer Anaïs Mitchell as a concept album, it’s more about the music than the story. Yes, the score’s fusion of folk with jazz and rock is often arresting but it’s repetitive, going round and round in circles just like scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s revolving stage.

Dancers perform in Hadestown
“The industrial/steampunk aesthetic, meanwhile, is very Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself'”

It feels derivative to me too. Orpheus is writing the perfect song, like Roger in Rent. There are shades of Jesus Christ Superstar in Hades’s growly singing, Little Shop of Horrors as a trio of Fates sashay around the main characters like a girl group, and even Les Miserables in the more arch numbers. The industrial/steampunk aesthetic, meanwhile, is very Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ video and Blond Ambition opening section.

Fans of Hadestown will love this new production, but…

Visually, the combination of steampunk with what appears to be Depression-era New Orleans is brilliant. There are some thrillingly kinetic dance breaks. When we descend into hell, the scenery rips apart. Director Rachel Chavkin impressively rallies against the confines of a proscenium stage with lots of breaking of the fourth wall. The on-stage band give the songs a bracing workout. And Gloria Onitiri’s Persephone tears into second act opener ‘Our Lady of the Underground’ with such down and dirty ferocity you can almost smell the moonshine on her breath.

Hadestown cast peform onstage
“The on-stage band give the songs a bracing workout” (Image: Marc Brenner)

In truth, fans of Hadestown will love this new production and they’ll come away from it on a high. But – and I hope I don’t burn in hell for saying so – the show still leaves me cold, however well it’s staged.

Tickets for Hadestown are available by clicking here.