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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Hadestown, Lyric Theatre

It’s been a long road for mythological musical 'Hadestown' from American singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, stopping off at a 2010 concept album, National Theatre outing in London in 2018 and, the following year, triumph on Broadway, where it is still running.

Along the way, the show has accumulated an ardent fan base, who are bound to greet its West End arrival with avid delight. An uneven, unsatisfying creation, it is light on plot, heavy on pretentious portent – yet it’s fitfully seductive, with Mitchell’s New Orleans jazz-inflected score and Rachel Chavkin’s fever dream of a production both oozing spicy flavour.

And the electrifying energy and knockout vocals of the cast come close to blasting away objections.

Rachel Hauck’s set is a saloon bar at the end of the world, presided over by divine messenger Hermes – a wise and puckish figure in a dapper silver suit played here, in a gender swap from the usual casting, by Melanie La Barrie.

Aided by a chorus of three shimmying Fates, fabulous in feathered hats, Hermes spins the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, reset against a backdrop of Grapes of Wrath-ish poverty and itinerancy.

For the inevitable test of their trust that must end in tragedy, the lovers descend to Hadestown, an industrialised, steampunk hell presided over by Zachary James’ saturnine, bass-singing Hermes and Gloria Onitiri as his glamorous, vital, captive wife Persephone, who pines for the green world above.

With the weather going haywire and Hades leading a menacing paean in praise of the wall on which the denizens of Hadestown endlessly toil – a Sisyphean labour to keep them “free” – the show makes vague metaphorical allusions to climate change and capitalism.

But there is a dramatic artlessness that verges on the naive, a lack of shape and intent; however scorching the singing, this is an undernourished parade of numbers rather an achieved theatrical work.

Best, then, just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Emphasising the fable’s universality, the performers sing in their natural accents, contrasting with the mythical Americana of the setting.

La Barrie’s Hermes is a glittering guide and a refreshing counterpoint to the other two women, whose fates are bound up in the whims and desire of men.

Grace Hodgett Young is a gorgeous, gutsy Eurydice and Dónal Finn a yearning, guitar-plucking Orpheus with a falsetto sweet as nectar. James glowers and rumbles effectively as Hades, while Onitiri’s breathtaking Persephone is part glittering party hostess, part panther, prowling her gilded cage, growling and purring.

The onstage band is a treat, too, complete with snarls and howls of wild brass, and David Neumann’s choreography adds texture while maintaining the momentum, blending the sinuous quiver and undulation of awakening passions and rising sap with the pumping pistons and percussive, back-breaking drudgery of eternal purgatorial suffering. Without a stronger narrative, it’s a show that only takes us, like the characters on Hauck’s cunningly deployed revolve, around in circles; but the journey is sometimes stunning.

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