The Book Thief
12th September 2023
Opening a musical with someone telling the audience “you’re all going to die one day” is certainly a unique way to get your audience’s attention from the start. Narrated by Death himself (played by Obioma Ugoala), the new musical adaptation of ‘The Book Thief’ (based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Markus Zusak) tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl sent into foster care in 1940s Nazi Germany, when her father is taken away for being a Communist. Liesel is adopted by the Hubermanns, abrasive wife Rosa (Mina Anwar) and kind-hearted husband Hans (Jack Lord). After finding a book dropped by chance, Liesel and Hans bond over their fascination with books, though Hans literacy skills are minimal and Liesel’s even less so. Their relationship deepens their love for the written word, and Liesel begins to read everything she can get her hands on. The Hubermanns offer secret refuge to Max (Daniel Krikler), a Jewish man in hiding, and Liesel begins to realise the true power of words, both the joy they can bring and the hate they can spread.
Zusak’s original novel won great acclaim, and its powerful story translates well to the stage. Boldly directed by Lotte Wakeham with some stark imagery and lighting (Nic Farman), it’s a truly human story about the power of love, language and mortality, and gives us characters to care about. The adapted book (Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald) layers the narrative with humour and some lovely character moments, and having the story narrated by a ever-looming personification of Death is a clever framing device (and not as bleak as it sounds, with even the show’s saddest moments being handled sensitively and delivered effectively.
Had ‘The Book Thief’ been presented as a play underscored by music, the result could well have been a wonderfully moving night at the theatre. However, the biggest problem with the show comes from it being adapted as musical (music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson), which is where it falls frustratingly short. The songs are flat and uninspired, actually slowing down the narrative rather than driving it, and become instantly forgettable the moment they finish. The principal cast are decent actors but largely aren’t the greatest singers, which doesn’t help sell the thin score, and neither does the small-scale orchestra. There’s nothing wrong with a more intimate and delicate sound, but the show is striving to be something more, and falling short because of its music. While obviously a great deal of work has gone into bringing the show to the stage, the score needs a lot of work. Musicals should leave their audiences humming at least one signature melody on the way home, but this one sadly doesn’t, and the quality of these songs is unfortunately at the detriment of the story.
Principal vocals may be shaky but the acting largely compensates for it. Obioma Ugoala makes Death commanding and engaging, and narrates the story well. Mina Anwar (always excellent) has great fun as the sharp-tongued Rosa with the heart underneath, and Jack Lord is hugely endearing as her adoring husband Hans. Coventry local Daniel Krikler also does well as Max, having great likeability to his portrayal.
The strength of all of the actors’ performances make ‘The Book Thief’ worth seeing, as well as the central emotive tale of humanity, but the production can’t shake the niggle that it would’ve been better served as a play. If ‘The Book Thief’ teaches us anything, it’s in the power of words, which are certainly stronger than the music offered here.
‘The Book Thief’ runs at the Belgrade Coventry until Saturday 16th September 2023 before moving on to Leicester’s Curve where it plays 29th September to 14th October 2023.
Performance runtime 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.