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Hadestown

Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, developed with Rachael Chavkin
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)
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Musicals have become great rarities at the National Theatre in recent years. Pleasingly, with the odd exception such as Follies, rather than reviving blockbusters the general rule has been to introduce unconventional new works, as often as not from the far side of the Atlantic.

Hadestown perfectly fits that description and arrives in London with the whole American backstage team as well as all five of the leading cast members.

The staging places a large cast and band in a mock-up of a bar and has echoes of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a previous Chavkin Broadway extravaganza.

Designer Rachael Hauck makes the most of the Olivier stage machinery, utilising the riser and also a triple revolve, thereby hiding the relative paucity of stage space available for the dramatic presentation.

For British viewers, the ethos might be compared to those of The Girl from the North Country or Once. The characters all wear modern costumes designed by Michael Krass, some of them glittery and spectacularly eye-catching.

The underlying tale is drawn from Greek myth and narrated by André De Shields’s laid-back Hermes. It centres on the ups and downs of love as viewed by Orpheus and Euridice, here played in what could be seen as Spiderman meets Miss Saigon given that the guitar-wielding young minstrel is portrayed by Reeve Carney and his bride, Eva Noblezada.

While their meeting leads to love at first sight, Orpheus seemed more interested in perfecting his love song meaning that he neglects its object.

As a result, Euridice is tempted to stray, meeting the gangster-like Hades, Patrick Page excelling particularly when given the opportunity to sing in tones that recall Tom Waits hitting unprecedented depths.

Already, though, there is a sense of déjà vu since Hades and his wife Persephone, in the colourful person of Amber Gray, something of a cabaret diva with alcoholic tendencies, have been there a generation before, eventually sinking to the depths of the Underworld.

This is where there is potential for allegorical interpretation since the super-rich Hades runs Hell as the kind of commercial venture that would please the most hawkish of capitalists. Indeed, there has to be the possibility that the song “Why We Build the Wall” is intended to poke fun at American’s highest profile capitalist particularly when it contains the line “We build the wall to keep us free”.

Since the plot is based on such a famous myth, there can be few surprises about the way in which the 2½-hour-long evening ends but it might still bring a tear to the eye.

Much of the attraction lies in Rachael Chavkin’s adventurous and often spectacular direction, featuring some amazing choreography courtesy of David Neumann and a variety of musical styles. As well as the aforementioned cabaret diva, these include the blues for Hermes, something close to country for Orpheus and even '40s onwards girl group imitations from a trio of Fates.

There are some really catchy numbers to take away spinning around in your head particularly “Way down Hadestown” and “Wait for Me”.

Hadestown is not a perfect work and can feel a little drawn out but it is a highly original new musical that shows off the talents of its performers perfectly, can be deeply moving and has every chance of selling out at the National and before too long moving on to the West End and/or Broadway.

Philip Fisher