First conceived as a DIY community theatre project by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006, Hadestown, a contemporary American reworking of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, was turned into an album in 2010, on which Mitchell took the female lead opposite Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver).
The tour made it to the UK, with roles for Martin Carthy, Jim Moray and Thea Gilmore. But now it’s in London as a fully fledged stage production, having been worked up by Mitchell alongside director Rachel Chavkin.
We know the songs are strong, then. And they translate brilliantly to the theatrical setting. André De Shields, impeccably cool as narrator Hermes, introduces us to the players via an upbeat slice of hot jazz – folkies will spot Mawkin’s David Delarre among the consistently superb on-stage band – that nonetheless warns us ‘it’s a sad song’. The stomping Way Down Hadestown feels tailor made for the ensemble treatment, while Why We Build the Wall – a song that has had its meaning clumsily reinforced by Donald Trump – is similarly punchy.
The songs do much of the work in carrying the narrative, and this is to their credit, though audiences will need either to be keen-eared enough to catch all the lyrics, or already familiar enough with the myth for it not to matter. There is, after all, a lot going on – inventive use of the Olivier’s rotating stages, a mining motif, constant visits from an enchanting trio of Fates, and a lot of business with bar stools among them.
To the young couple, then (and boy do they seem young). Eva Noblezada, as Eurydice, is both wide-eyed and smart, while Reeve Carney, as Orpheus, has something of a baby Dylan or Springsteen about him. Their musical courtship is affecting and charming, with The Wedding Song revealing something of Eurydice’s pragmatism and Orpheus’s naïve cockiness.
But before long, Eurydice elects to go to the underworld, tempted by Hades – a superb Patrick Page, whose presence is underlined by his thunderous baritone, and his character more nuanced than the generic baddie we might expect. (He’s considerably wilier than the would-be wall-builder in the White House, and his rumbling Hey, Little Songbird is a devilishly charming highlight.)
Amber Gray, meanwhile, is a great as Hades’ wife Persephone, sublimating her disgust at her husband’s actions into boozing and making merry. As the narrative gains pace in the second half, she plays a key role in Orpheus’ attempt to rescue his love from the underworld – but her and Hades unexpectedly steal the show as they emotionally reconnect.
Carney’s high-register delivery, which initially feels a little insubstantial, makes more sense in opposition to Hades’ growl, and he grows in confidence as the play progresses, with the arrangements increasingly dancing to his tune, elevating a simple ‘la la la’ motif to something celestial.
Even audience members unfamiliar with the story have been warned what to expect from the narrative – it’s a sad song, remember? – and the key moment delivers dramatic bite. But the production plays a trump card, with a beautiful coda about persistence. It’s an intimate, thoughtful flourish that underlines the modern-day relevance of an age-old story – one that you’ll want to catch in the UK while you can. Next stop, Broadway.