The Book Thief is based on the Markus Zusak's bestselling 2008 book of the same name. Now, after years of rumblings, it finally gets its long overdue musical premiere. It is not very often that I am lucky enough to see a world premiere of a new musical, even less likely it happening in Bolton! However, Bolton is home to a wonderfully modern theatre (despite being opened in 1967) known as The Octagon. Often showcasing in the round performances this performance has been staged more traditionally in the space.
We follow Liesel, a young girl in Nazi Germany who is fostered by the Hubermanns. The family also kindly take in a Jewish man called Max, trying desperately to keep him safe in a time when it was most certainly not safe to be Jewish in Germany! Liesel is taught to read by her foster father and develops a love for reading, stealing books to keep her love alive. Max is almost like another father figure to young Liesel, teaching her love over hate in a time where so much hate faced him.
It is far from the first musical adaptation to focus on Nazi Germany, with greats like Cabaret having adorned the stage for decades. What is does though, is it faces this world head on from the very start. It simultaneously has an almost timeless feeling whilst having a whole lot of heart. The disturbing time period is visualised through the dark brown and blue tones lighting the show. At first the use of regional accents felt at odds with the very certain German setting, however this was perhaps more of a suggestion that both love and hate still exist universally today. For instance, the chants to 'make Germany great again' felt like a very deliberate nod to the previous Trump administration in America.
The cast were phenomenal and utilised well throughout. So often, the power of a strong chorus is forgotten, luckily this didn’t happen under Lotte Wakeham's direction and music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Although the whole cast was universally strong, the standout performance came from young Bea Glancy (Liesel) who was utterly captivating. She conveys so much emotion in every movement, facial expression and word she uttered, she really does have a bright and exciting career ahead of her.
Other than the company itself, the other star of the show is the choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves. The cast move effortlessly and beautifully, often in broken formation almost signifying a powerful uniting in darker times. Powerful is how this whole production can be summed up. At times it purposely makes you feel uncomfortable with both its themes and visuals, yet balances this with lighter moments.
Unlike some other recently premiered musicals, the music is incredible, and I pray we get a cast recording. If/when the cast recording is released, a few will definitely be finding their way on to my 'Stagey Apple Music Playlist'! Danielle Henry (Rosa Hubermann) had the audience in relatable laughter during 'Dreadful', one of the lighter highlights of the show. In fact, the show perfectly blended light with dark flawlessly throughout, taking the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house by the end!
It really was West End quality but on a smaller regional stage. It was filled with heart and littered with messages of choosing love over hate, something the world needs now more than ever! It really does deserve a London transfer and I'd love to see this somewhere like The Other Palace where it would triumph. I caught this production towards the end of its run, but you still have one more week to see this at the Octagon where it continues until Saturday 15/10/2022. Book a ticket, you won't regret it!
Photo © Pamela Rait