Your Lie in April review – West End manga musical has a showstopping moment

The much-loved manga comes to the stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Zheng Xi Yong and Mia Kobayashi, © Craig Sugden
Zheng Xi Yong and Mia Kobayashi, © Craig Sugden

This adaptation of Naoshi Arakawa’s wildly popular manga series was a hit in Tokyo post-pandemic and received its English language premiere in a lauded concert version at Drury Lane earlier this year. Now Your Lie In April returns for a fully-fledged West End season in a glory of pink cherry blossom, orchestral swells and unabashed sentimentality.

Composer Frank Wildhorn seems to have a penchant for manga as he’s also musicalised another series, the much more fantastical, high-camp Death Note, seen in a Palladium concert last year. Preposterous as that one is, it perhaps felt more likely to receive a full production than this delicate but mawkish tale of love, loss and classical musicianship.

The sketchiness of the characterisations plus the park-and-bark nature of the attractive, moderately memorable songs suggest that Your Lie In April works best in a semi-theatrical presentation, an impression reinforced by the rapid tonal changes that work fine in a cartoon but prove bewildering on stage: it’s equal parts Japanese high school musical, Les Mis knock-off, and variant on 1980s Eurovision.

There is little dramatic momentum and only intermittent power in Nick Winston and Jordan Murphy’s visually appealing but predominantly static staging, but that seems more due to Riko Sakaguchi’s pedestrian book, adapted by Rinne B Groff, rather than a lack of imagination on the part of the creatives.

Wildhorn’s bombastic theatrical pop and the cartoonish ebullience of Arakawa’s visual storytelling spliced together make an uneven, if mostly enjoyable, marriage. Carly Robyn Green and Tracy Miller’s lyrics are pretty banal, coming from the anything-for-a-rhyme school of songwriting, but have a breathless naivety that at least matches the source material.

The show’s biggest asset is the sensitive performance of Zheng Xi Yong as Kōsei, the young pianist so wracked with guilt over the death of his perfectionist mother (a suitably severe Lucy Park) that he can no longer hear music, and the production’s irresistible USP is that he actually does play the piano to recital level. The second act showstopper isn’t a traditional vocal chord-shredding number but Kōsei’s winning competition entry, where Yong’s virtuosic skill is simultaneously beamed up onto a giant screen from a camera trained upon his hands on the keys. The fact that he’s also a credible actor with a likeable, nerdy stage presence and a voice equal to the belty, rangy score (Wildhorn’s tunes are easy for us in the audience but notably demanding for the singers) are added bonuses. The character also appears as a little boy, played winningly on opening night by Theo Oh, who alternates with a pair of other young actors in the role.

The cast of Your Lie in April
The cast of Your Lie in April, © Craig Sugden

Mia Kobayashi invests doomed Kaori, the fiery violinist who inspires and adores him, with a gorgeous voice and a commendable lack of sentimentality at least until the final section where Wildhorn’s stridently lush songs and the blunt storytelling smother everybody and everything in syrupy schmaltz. Personally, I found it too manipulative to be genuinely moving, but there were more than a few sniffles throughout the auditorium. Rachel Clare Chan is a stand-out as the tomboyish best friend who carries a torch for Kōsei (think Éponine in a school uniform) and Dean John-Wilson is underused as an amiable jock, but sparkles whenever he gets opportunities to unleash his terrific voice and comic timing.

Justin Williams’ pastel-coloured set, an intricate affair of platforms and semi-bridges around a gleaming grand piano on a revolve, is a very pretty eyeful but looks as though it was conceived for a much larger stage than the one at the Pinter. Dan Light’s mood-shifting video designs are often stunning, and Rory Beaton’s lighting works in perfect tandem with them.

As demonstrated with his long-running 1990s Broadway smash Jekyll and Hyde and recent London success Bonnie and Clyde, Wildhorn’s shows have a history of being critically derided but adored by the paying public and one wonders if Your Lie In April will enjoy a similar fate. The opening night audience absolutely loved it.

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Your Lie in April

Final performance: 21 September 2024