For fans of Japanese manga Death Note, its musical adaptation’s English language premiere at the rightly revered London Palladium is at the very least a cause for curiosity – at most, and as seemed to be the case for many queuing in costume outside the venue, it was the theatrical event of the decade. Huge whoops, cheers and screams followed every number of Frank Wildhorn, Ivan Menchell and Jack Murphy’s piece, giving the performance a suitably epic sense of scale.
For the uninitiated audience members, things may have been a smidge more patchy: in part due to somewhat inevitable first night sound bugs, disrupting the occasional expository passages, as well as the sheer complexity of what is essentially a cat-and-mouse thriller – with added omnipresent deities, mysterious plot machinations and extended ruminations on the concepts of justice and law.
To keep it simple, the show (and the original 2003 manga it is based on) follows Light, a Japanese teenager who, through providence, acquires a book that lets him kill anyone by simply writing down their name. Light, with a righteous sense of vigilante fervour, proceeds to bump off dozens of criminal figures – in the process gaining the attention of maverick detective L, who becomes determined to track down the anonymous slayer. Keeping a sardonic eye over proceedings is the Shinigami Ryuk, an invisible figure of death with a penchant for apples (and excessive feather designs) that takes pleasure in Light’s bloody crusade.
The manga (and the 2006 anime it spawned) were hugely popular, while the musical has gained a major fanbase in Japan (where it first premiered in 2015) and South Korea, while an English-language concept album has also amassed a cult following. The Palladium run has continued this widespread sense of popularity – selling out three performances in speedy time and locking in a second series of shows at the smaller Lyric Theatre next month.
For the most part, though, the hype is real – helped by a pair of splendid central performances from Joaquin Pedro Valdes (Light) and Dean John-Wilson (L). The show really fizzes when the two face one another – especially during tennis match duet “Playing His Game”. For musical aficionados, another big draw is the chance to see Broadway icon Adam Pascal back on UK stages, playing the distinctively maniacal Ryuk with enough scenery-chomping glee to fill the massive space.
Not something that a critic feels accustomed to saying, but the show feels as though it could have benefited from an additional 20 to 30 minutes to its 130 minute runtime – fleshing out its book, clarifying and intensifying its debate around the nature of objective justice in the face of nihilistic oblivion and, perhaps most importantly, giving its female characters more depth and nuance (a similar issue seen in Wildhorn and Menchell’s Bonnie and Clyde).
This feels more pronounced for Aimie Atkinson’s Rem, another Shinigami that attempts to meddle in human matters, as well as pop sensation Misa, played by the equally sensational Francis Mayli McCann. Both characters, along with Light’s sister Sayu (Rachel Clare Chan), become instrumental to the show’s gripping and smart conclusion, but are rather thanklessly saddled with unceremonious endings. As she did in Bonnie and Clyde, McCann still gets a fair few showstopper moments here – including the choreography-heavy “I’m Ready”.
Any musical should live or die by its tunes, and this is where Death Note really comes into its own – especially in Valdes’s rendition of early number “Hurricane” and Atkinson’s 11 o’clock “When Love Comes”.
Punters shouldn’t be fooled by the words “In Concert” – Death Note is as boisterous and fully blocked as some shows inhabiting the West End right now – thanks in large part to director and choreographer Nick Winston – pulling off excellent work with a limited rehearsal period. The rapidity and punchy brutality of the storytelling creates a thrill-ride ending that combines fantastical shocks with edge-of-the-seat twists – earning a big thumbs up along the way. This, and the top-tier turns, truly make this a show worth writing home about.