”The Book Thief” musical world premiere – review

Niamh Palmer and the cast of The Book Thief
Niamh Palmer and the cast of The Book Thief
© Pamela Raith
There’s a distinct whiff of alarm about the scene in this new musical adaptation of The Book Thief in which the Nazis parade book-burning as a sound and moral thing to do. It is, after all, something of a regular occurrence for co-librettist Jodi Picoult’s bestselling novels to be banned in America. The modern parallels with this wartime Holocaust story are all too evident.

Picoult is credited alongside musicals veteran Timothy Allen McDonald for the script of this Bolton Octagon world premiere. Songs are by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, whose work has been featured in Disney and Apple TV+ productions. Together, this American quartet have taken the epic Markus Zusak novel, first published in 2005, and reworked it as a zippy two-hour morality tale.

The Octagon’s artistic director Lotte Wakeham has been closely involved in the show’s development and has secured a coup in giving it its first outing in Bolton – albeit rather later than planned, thanks to that pesky pandemic. If it feels at times like one of those out-of-town tryouts that the Americans are so good at, then perhaps that’s no bad thing: it will give the show a chance to find its feet and establish its tone.

For now, there’s no shortage of commitment and energy. With a grounding thread provided by enigmatic narrator Ryan O’Donnell, it flies through the tale of young Liesel and her neighbour Rudy – played enthusiastically at this performance by Niamh Palmer and Charlie Murphy – as they navigate the brutal realities of wartime Germany and their implications for families, communities and, inevitably, Jews.

The musical's ensemble
The musical’s ensemble
© Pamela Raith

Among the 12-strong adult company, Danielle Henry and Jack Lord are outstanding as Liesel’s foster parents, squabbling affectionately and providing an emotional core at the heart of the fast-paced action. Wakeham’s direction and Tom Jackson Greaves’s relentless choreography sometimes feel cramped and over-busy in the compact playing space but there are some intelligent and effective motifs that echo the musical score and the show is clearly constructed with thought and love.

A four-piece band under musical director Matthew Malone spans a huge range of styles, from blues to Viennese waltz, and although numbers such as a nationalist anthem and an oompah drinking song may feel over-familiar from the likes of Cabaret and even The Sound of Music, Samsel and Anderson’s score is both coherent and texturally varied – not an easy combination to pull off.

And let’s not underestimate the sheer achievement of staging a new musical at all in the current climate and under the enormously stressful operational conditions faced by most theatres in this country right now. For that alone, it could be argued, The Book Thief deserves the standing ovation it received on press night.

The historical resonances occasionally feel a little heavy-handed, with Trumpian references to “fake news” and “making Germany great again”. On the other hand, given the rise of fervid nationalist populism around the world, maybe the time for subtlety is past.