“Hadestown” at Lyric Theatre

Mark Shenton in the West End
22 February 2024

Like The Who’s Tommy, which began its rock-opera life as a 1969 concept album long before being brought to the Broadway stage in 1993 (and due to return there imminently), Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown also began as a folk-rock album in 2010.


Gloria Onitiri.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


The storming stage version that has now returned to London – after an earlier, pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre in 2018, which itself followed a 2016 Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop – is now already a triumphant 2019 Tony winner for Best Musical and has been running on Broadway for over 1,300 (pandemic-interrupted) performances so far.

So it comes back to London now with a significant track record and even bigger expectations. But director Rachel Chavkin hasn’t just carbon-copied her expansive (and expensive) Broadway version, but scaled it expertly for the more intimate confines of Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric Theatre.

Like Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s likewise Tony-winning 2006 musical Spring Awakening, this is a piece of gig theatre mapped to an existing classic story, but given vibrant contemporary resonances and relevance. (Mitchell could not have foreseen it, but was weirdly prescient when she wrote the act one closing number for Hades, “Why we build the wall”, which I’m surprised Donald Trump hasn’t hijacked for one of his rallies.) Both pieces, of course, chart the growing pains of young love and lovers, and both are set to pulsating, soaringly memorable melodies.

Telling the story of the doomed romance of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America, Hadestown is more concerned with atmospheric musical layerings than narrative drive; but if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, this particular road to hell is paved with great songs. They usefully and entertainingly stretch out what could be despatched in 20 minutes of plot into nearly two and a half hours of driving, scorchingly red-hot performance.


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


It is sizzlingly led by Melanie La Barrie, a shock of white hair above a slick silver suit, as a West Indian accented Hermes, who acts as the show’s narrator. She introduces us to Dónal Finn’s gentle, Irish-inflected Orpheus and Grace Hodgett Young’s East Midlands-accented Eurydice, whose sexual chemistry and yearning is unmistakeable.

But Orpheus is too obsessed with – as the character in another now vintage rock musical Rent has it – writing one great song before he dies, and neglects her; she sells her soul to the devil, literally, in the tall, black-coated shape of Zachary James’s imposing, thrillingly deep-voiced Hades. To get her out of hell, Orpheus has to agree to terms that – as anyone familiar with the Greek legend will know – don’t end well.

But as performed with such total commitment and conviction here, the entire company rises to the challenge. A trio of the “fates” (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne, and Allie Daniel) stalk the action and comment on it; five workers provide the main muscular thrust of David Neumann’s exhilarating choreography. The superb onstage band of seven is a character all of its own, led by Tarek Merchant on piano and accordion.

Rachel Hauck’s handsome bar-room set, thrillingly lit by Bradley King, has some hidden surprises of its own – in a show that is full of them.