Hadestown review – Lyric Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Dónal Finn. Photo: Marc Brenner

It seems incredible that it has taken over five years for Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown to return to London following its sold-out run at the National Theatre in 2018. It found itself overlooked at the Olivier Awards, picking up no nominations, before its 2019 Broadway transfer corrected the record picking up eight Tony Awards, including Best New Musical, and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album for the subsequent Broadway cast recording, which has now amassed 350 million streams online.

All of that sets the bar high for a buzzing crowd on the opening night of the West End transfer. Such is the anticipation, the entrance of the cast for the opening number is greeted by applause and cheers before a single note has been sung. Such hype is dangerous territory for any show, with serious pressure to live up to expectations – particularly with official releases referencing reworking to improve the award-winning musical.

The story itself follows the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus (Dónal Finn) and Eurydice (Grace Hodgett Young) and their trip to the underworld where Eurydice, starving on earth, agrees to work for Hades (Zachary James), setting the songwriting Orpheus on a journey to rescue her. Hermes (Melanie La Barrie) acts as our narrator for the evening while the Fates (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne, and Allie Daniel) act as an anti-chorus, meddling in the action. Like Orpheus, the musical has had quite a journey, beginning as a concert in 2006 with Mitchell herself in the role of Eurydice, before being transformed into a concept album in 2010 and then an off-Broadway production in 2016, developed with director Rachel Chavkin, before its National Theatre outing in 2018. Its storied life was completed by its Broadway transfer, a North American tour and, now, the West End.

Grace Hodgett Young. Photo: Marc Brenner

And yet, despite its success to date, there is something about the West End production that doesn’t click. Admittedly, it’s not helped by a sound balance between vocals and music that makes the former difficult to discern in the numbers with more energy. I briefly wonder if it’s just me, but hear (ironically) others discussing the same issue in the interval. Although the plot is relatively light, it does make it more challenging to follow and understand what’s happening for someone new to the story, and the characters’ motivations get lost in the murk: it begins to feel two-dimensional.

What is still very obvious, though, is the talent on display. Dónal Finn makes for a sensational Orpheus, full of passion and vulnerability. The use of his natural accent adds to the authenticity – as an Irishman, it makes me wish for more of this in the West End. Grace Hodgett Young, whose first theatrical outing came in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Sunset Boulevard last year, confirms that her debut was no fluke: it it is a wonderful and technically accomplished performance of the evening. Zachary James shines too on his big numbers but finds himself restrained by the source material at times, a characteristic ‘bad guy,’ inevitably Trumpish in his desire to build a wall to keep the undesirables out.

Zachary James. Photo: Marc Brenner

It almost redeems itself in a stunning climax with Epic III, Finn reaching new tear-jerking heights, before it undoes it all with a meandering (if incredibly impressively lit) close. Even after the curtain call, we’re treated to the equivalent of the Marcel Cinematic Universe’s post-credits end-scene with an additional music number, and then a second as the band plays us out of the auditorium with audience members conflicted between staying for the full experience and wondering if this counts as part of the experience at all, and whether they would be better running for the last train home instead.

Despite all of this, there is something inherently likeable about Mitchell’s musical. The songs feel familiar but original, toeing a line between American folk, jazz, blues and musical theatre. On paper, this is the ideal musical for me, marrying my love of Americana and theatre. Still, what I, or any other critic thinks, probably doesn’t matter: the reaction of the opening night audience suggests a long life for Hadestown in the West End.

Hadestown is at the Lyric Theatre, currently booking to December 2024