Review – The Book Thief, Leicester Curve
The Book Thief cemented its place on my list of best books ever the very first time I read it, and so when I heard a musical adaptation of this wonderful story was coming to the Curve, I asked very, very nicely if I could have the pleasure of reviewing it – and I’m so glad I did.
Narrated by Death, it tells the story of Liesl, a young girl orphaned by war (with a proclivity for stealing books) who finds herself in the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who also happen to be harboring a Jew in their basement. We follow her, and the other residents of Himmel Street, as they navigate the prejudice of Germany under the Third Reich and experience their own personal losses. This wonderful stage adaptation, with libretto written by Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald and music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, captures the powerful message of this story, as well as evoking the rich imagery and vivid metaphors which make Markus Zusak’s book such a delight to read.
The show opens with Obiama Ugoala (Death), along with the rest of the ‘storytellers’ (ensemble) asking us to ‘Have a Heart’ and listen to the story he will tell us about a book thief. Ugoala has a powerful and soulful voice which keeps the audience engaged through his animated storytelling – indeed, he is on stage for most of the show, observing and occasionally dropping well-placed props to drive the plot (as well as taking on some ‘choice’ cameo roles which certainly add an element of humour).
It’s always a treat to see the talent that young performers bring to the stage, and Eirini Louskou has it in buckets. She gives a brilliant portrayal of the fiesty Liesl, and plays the part with strength and poise, not to mention a beautiful voice to boot. Her rendition of ‘Hello Stars’, which becomes a motif in the show with several reprises, is lovely and heartfelt. Especially impressive is the emotion she evokes when dealing with the many losses the character faces across the course of the show.
Jack Lord is a stand-out for me, and is the perfect choice for Hans Hubermann. He brings the silliness and warmth of the character, while also demonstrating his musical skill on the accordion, giving a wonderfully sensitive performance as Liesl’s surrogate father; the relationship they create on stage is completely natural and a joy to watch. His emotional song, ‘Music Nonetheless’ is a highlight in act 1, as he reminisces on a friendship and an unrequitable act of kindness which he does his best to repay.
His wife, Rosa, is played by Mina Anwar, and she triumphs as the sharp-tongued matriarch. Her comic timing is excellent, especially in her feud with Frau Holtzapfel (Corinna Powlesland), and particularly shines in her Act 2 number, ‘Dreadful’, where she displays a perfect mix of comedy and anguish. A very strong performance and the ideal match for Lord’s witty Hans.
Another young performer with bundles of talent is Oliver Gordon, who plays Liesl’s best friend (who she loves to hate), Rudy. Obsessed with black Olympian Jesse Owens (but with no comprehension of why this might be dangerous in Nazi Germany), he is cheeky and mischievous with seemingly unlimited energy, as he bounces around the stage, repeatedly asking Liesl ‘How ‘Bout’ a kiss? Their friendship is the light in the darkness of the story, and Louskou and Gordon make it absolutely believable.
Max Vandenburg, the Jewish boxer hiding in the Hubermann’s basement, is my favourite character in the book, and Daniel Krikler does him absolute justice with his beautifully sympathetic performance, which is full of charm and emotion. His Act 1 number, ‘The Challenger’, in which he boxes with a giant puppet-Hitler made of newspaper (cleverly designed by Sam Wilde), reflects the hopelessness he feels against the hate being spread by the Nazi party, and Krikler shows his stamina and athleticism with the balletic routine which accompanies the song. His relationship with Liesl is equally convincing, as he teaches her about the power of words and her loss when he leaves her is felt too by the audience.
The set, by Good Teeth, is extremely effective, making good use of projections and achieving a fluidity as we move between different scenes (particularly impressive in the lapsing of time in act 2). Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is utterly mesmerising; there are very few moments of stillness as the company add a dynamism to the performance with their highly stylised movements, which accompany not only the musical numbers but a lot of the scenes too – even the set and scene changes are done with a purposeful flourish.
Lotte Wakeham’s direction brings the magic of this story to life, and she has created something really special. Much of Act 1 is exposition, building the relationships between the characters which are integral for ensuring the ending has the intended impact, and it is clear that Wakeham has put this at the heart of the production. It is captivating, emotional and heart-warming, and an absolute must-see (just don’t forget to pack some tissues).
Photo credit: Pamela Raith