Review: The Da Vinci Code. Belgrade Theatre Coventry (touring)

The Da Vinci Code

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

24th February 2022

Dan Brown’s mega-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code” was THE must-read of 2003.  Anyone who sat on a long train journey or lay on a beach that year was seemingly engrossed in its radical take on Christianity and the supposed cover-up of a relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, and 100 million readers ended up trying to decipher the clues and unravel the mystery alongside the novel’s characters.  The hype hit Hollywood in 2006 and a “not very good” film was released.  Now it’s theatre’s turn, and a new stage adaptation is touring the UK.

Credit: Johan Persson

If you’re one of the 100 million people who boosted Brown’s sales then you’ll already know the plot, and the stage version remains faithful to it; Louvre curator Jacques Sauniere is murdered, and a series of clues revealed after his death lead symbologist Robert Langdon (EastEnders’ Nigel Harman) and cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Hannah Rose Caton) back to the roots of the Christian faith, and a closely-guarded secret which is set to shock the world.  Harman and Neveu try to get to the bottom of the mystery, unsure of who to trust between those who want the revelation revealed, and those who want it to remain buried forever.

The novel was obviously going to be condensed to prevent the play being 9 hours long, but it’s been taken too far. Brown’s exposition may have been ploddy and heavy but at least it gave the story some weight; Director Luke Sheppard’s stage version has no sense of threat or danger, like Langdon and Neveu are just mates doing an escape room challenge.  It zips along, almost giving a ‘highlights’ version of the story, oversimplified and with all of the gravity removed.  Code-breaking challenges come too easily, reduced to mere seconds of thought and removing all of the fun for audience members who don’t know the answers from the novel.   All of the religious and political machinations and ideologies have either been minimised or removed completely, robbing the story of its depth.  It almost feels like the creators felt theatre audiences couldn’t handle anything too deep or complicated, so have offered a ‘taster menu’ of the novel, which is sadly far from satisfying.

Credit: Johan Persson

The novel constantly reminds us of what’s at stake in this story, a life and death race to reveal a massive secret in religious history that will fundamentally change the world forever. These characters just don’t seem too fussed about any of it. Harman makes for a capable enough lead, but unfortunately his is the only commendable performance.  Danny John-Jules gives a hammy turn as Grail expert Leigh Teabing, and Alpha Kargbo just shouts all of his lines as Police Captain Bezu Fache, whether he needs to or not.  In her stage debut, Hannah Rose Caton plays Neveu as too earnestly perky, seemingly forgetting she’s on the run while mourning her grandfather, and instead acting like she’s in a jolly exciting Nancy Drew mystery.  The play’s final act feels rushed, with all explanation and exposition delivered flatly and heavily.  It begins to feel like the scene in a bad action film where the villain reveals his lengthy evil plan for no reason before the hero saves the day.  Everyone delivers their lines so quickly towards the end, you wonder if the actors are just rushing through it in order to avoid paying parking after 9.30pm.

The show’s technical creative team (David Woodhead, Andrzej Goulding, Lizzie Powell and Ben & Max Ringham) have done a great job in making the play look and sound terrific, feeling slick and modern, and the video screens and projections are used inventively and with style.  Together they’ve made the show really engaging for the eyes and ears.  It’s just a shame everything else does nothing for the brain.

It’s often said that “the books are always better than the films”.  In the case of “The Da Vinci Code”, the book is also better than the stage production.  If you’re going to adapt something of substance, then that substance needs to be retained, but this time it’s sadly lacking.

“The Da Vinci Code” plays at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre this week, before continuing its UK tour.

Performance runtime 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

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