The Book Thief

Based on the novel by Marcus Zusak, libretto by Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald, music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson
Dem Productions, Writers' Cage and Andrew Paradis in association with Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Bethany Cooper and Octagon Theatre Bolton
Curve Theatre, Leicester

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Tilly-Raye Bayer (Liesel), and cast of The Book Thief Credit: Pamela Raith
Tilly-Raye Bayer (Liesel), Mina Anwar (Rosa), Jack Lord (Hans) Credit: Pamela Raith
Obioma Ugoala (Narrator) and cast of The Book Thief Credit: Pamela Raith
Daniel Krikler (Max) and cast of The Book Thief Credit: Pamela Raith
Daniel Krikler (Max) and cast of The Book Thief Credit: Pamela Raith

After its première at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre last year, this musical adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling 2006 novel The Book Thief now has a two-week run at Curve Theatre following performances at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

While this is a story set in 1940s Germany with the pain and tragedy of war and intolerance all too evident, resonances with today’s headlines are clear. Fellow humans: the words of Winston Churchill, namely “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, are worth keeping in mind.

With her parents taken away and likely executed as communists and her young brother dead through illness, Liesel (Tilly-Rae Bayer) goes to live with foster parents Rosa (Mina Anwar) and Hans (Jack Lord). Hans teaches Liesel to read and a new world full of language and ideas opens up for her. As the Nazi dictat to burn books deemed subversive takes hold, Liesel develops a habit of rescuing books from the flames and thus becomes known as the book thief.

Liesel also befriends Rudy (Thommy Bailey Vine), an enthusiastic fan of Jesse Owens and the Hitler Youth. As life for Jews and anyone not conforming to the Nazi regime becomes increasingly dangerous, Rosa and Hans hide Max (Daniel Krikler), a boxer and German Jew, in their basement, fulfilling a promise made by Hans after Max’s father saved Hans’s life during their time as soldiers during the First World War. Max shows Liesel how words have power, and words of hate can be overridden by those of kindness and love.

During an air raid, Max takes his chances and escapes the basement, and as the bombing continues and tragedy unfolds, Liesel begins a new journey.

This production is faithful to the book, with the ubiquitous narrator (Obioma Ugoala) on stage for much of the time, appearing out of the shadows with props, to provide details or drive the narrative forward. Ugoala is a commanding presence on stage, with a rich, powerful voice and he deftly balances pathos with the more humorous moments.

Anwar’s portrayal of the brusque, no-nonsense Rosa is made all the more poignant during her heartfelt lament to her absent husband in “Dreadful”, and her edges are nicely smoothed by Lord as her more mellow and tender husband.

Tilly-Rae Bayer and Thommy Bailey Vine as the two children carry many key scenes, and their vocal performances and characterisation are beautifully executed.

What also really stands out is the marriage of Good Teeth’s set design with Nic Farman’s effective lighting, complemented further by the use of projection (Dick Straker). The town, with its drab walls and doorways, contrasts with the golden glow of emotional warmth generated in the basement and the wonder of a star-studded night. The recurring motifs of books incorporated into Tom Jackson Greaves’s choreography keeps the story grounded in its core message.

This being a musical, music is of course key to the performance, and Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson’s music and lyrics reflect the period setting, with elements of sung-through dialogue as well as more operatic and traditional stage musical sections. I wouldn’t say they are songs that stick in the mind, but they are very much in keeping with the mood and tone of the whole production.

Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald’s adaptation covers a lot of ground, and act two has a rather rushed feel; however, director Lotte Wakeham’s use of stylised choreography weaves the short scenes together, with the cast appearing to glide through the story seamlessly changing props and scenery.

This is a creative and theatrical adaptation of a powerful story.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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