Review: THE BOOK THIEF, Octagon Theater Bolton

Bolton’s Octagon Theater presents the world premiere of the musical adaption of Markus Zusak’s internationally bestselling book The Book Thief. This stage adaptation began its development process back in 2016 by a creative team of Jodi Picoult & Timothy Allen McDonald for the libretto and Elyssa Samsel & Kate Anderson for the music & lyrics.

The Book Thief follows the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl living in Nazi Germany who is given up by her mother in order to protect her and is fostered by the Hubermanns. Set in 1939 at the beginning of the second world war, Liesel’s story is narrated as she gains the nickname ‘book thief’ from learning to read from books she steals from various places, including at her brother’s funeral and from Nazi book burnings. Liesel befriends local boy Rudy Steiner and Max, a Jew whom Hans Hubermann agrees to hide on a promise to a man who saved his life.

As the center of the story, the leading role of Liesel is a demanding role for a young performer, as is the role of her friend Rudy, however the casting team for The Book Thief have chosen some wonderfully talented performers who rise to such a challenge brilliantly. We had the pleasure of seeing Niamh Palmer and Charlie Murphy perform in the roles of Liesel and Rudy respectively, but they also share the roles with other young talent Bea Glancy and Alfie Corbett and both duos alternate performances so that all four of the young performers get the opportunity to shine.

Direction comes from Artistic Director of the Octagon Theater Lotte Wakeham and is truly wonderful. The way that the narrator (played by Ryan O’Donnell) has been integrated into the story as an omnipresent figure has been thoroughly thought through and, without giving any spoilers away, seems even more clever by the end of the show. Various techniques such as puppetry and the use of recurring motifs in Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography really paints a visual picture of the story, additional to the more naturalistic performances of scenes on stage. One element of the show which doesn’t quite feel right is the actors’ use of their own regional accents. Whilst this is becoming more popular in the world of theater, having a selection of accents from different UK origins feels out of place when the production is set in such a specific setting of 1939 Nazi Germany.

The music that Samsel & Anderson have composed for this new musical is excellent. Both the music and the lyrics have a blend of melancholy and hope which matches the dynamic changes of the narrative perfectly. Led by Musical Director Matthew Malone, the small but mighty band of The Book Thief is comprised of Meg Davies, Isis Dunthorne and Heather MacLeod, creating a beautiful sound to the accompany the vocals of the onstage performers.

The Octagon Theater is a uniquely shaped venue and set design from Good Teeth utilizes the venue’s shape to have varying levels and compartments that open up to reveal new spaces. The set design, combined with the lighting design of Nic Farman, makes the production a visually mesmerising masterpiece.

This brand new stage adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a sensationally beautiful production that tells a moving story from the perspective of a young girl living in Nazi Germany. From the music, the storyline and the stage design, The Book Thief may leave you in tears, or as this show calls them, crying seeds of kindness.

**** Four stars

Reviewed by: Jess Dalloway

The Book Thief plays at the Octagon Theater in Bolton until 15 October, with tickets available here.

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