Review of The Book Thief at Bolton Octagon.
The world premiere of a new musical, an adaptation of a best-selling book, and the largest scale show staged in the new building – The Book Thief is obviously a big deal for Bolton Octagon. Yet there is no sign of any nerves in director Lotte Wakeham’s ambitious and well put together production.
Based on Markus Zusak’s novel, the show follows the story of Liesel, a young girl growing up amidst the turmoil of Nazi Germany. Her fascination with books is encouraged by her foster father Hans. As well as teaching her to read, he also helps her to begin to understand the power of words.
When Hans and his wife agree to secretly shelter a young Jewish boxer within their home, Liesel develops a strong bond with him. He encourages her to write, and their growing friendship shapes her perspective on life.
It’s clear from the programme notes (and Jodi Picoult’s recent interview on Front Row) that the musical’s writing team see many thematic parallels between their source material and contemporary society, particularly the Trump era and America’s febrile political situation. However, if such thoughts were at the forefront of the team’s creative process, they are only lightly alluded to within the show. Their focus remains on Zusak’s original story, and it’s left to the audience to draw any additional conclusions.
One of the production’s strengths is that despite it being a musical, the main characters have depth. Particularly the roles of Liesel’s foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, in which Jack Lord and Danielle Henry deliver wonderfully rich performances.
Director Lotte Wakeham also extracts perfectly pitched contributions from her young company – just the right side of cute, but also in tune with the emotional depths of the story. As Liesel, Niamh Palmer (sharing the role with Bea Glancy) confidently engages the audience in the twists and turns of her character’s journey.
Musically, it’s a pleasingly diverse offering, drawing on influences from classical, to swing, and even Bavarian oompah. There are some memorable tunes in the mix, and the reprise of several of them later in the show no doubt helps reinforce any ability to linger in the audience’s minds post-show. Notably, one song, ‘Hello Stars’, is reprised to good effect, with each appearance adding new layers and finding new meaning in its deceptively simple lyrics.
Designers Good Teeth’s set draws the eye to the full height of the theatre, with an almost skeletal library of books stretching upwards from a narrow balcony. Faded fragments of pages appear to be plastered across the stage walls, their edges burnt or torn.
An assortment of large suitcases makes several appearances, but the production itself travels light. Props are used minimally, with the main performance area left clutter-free to accommodate the large ensemble who move through the space with skillfully choreographed fluidity.
While each of the cast have a main role, they are also called upon to play minor characters, populate crowd scenes, or be part of some imaginative set pieces – fluttering a flock of books invitingly, steering a fast-flowing boxing ring rope, or bringing Liesel’s stories to life with puppetry.
Undoubtedly the writing team have their sights set on a continued life for their musical, and larger venues (both here and in America). Some of the show’s ensemble scenes already have the potential to be scaled up to accommodate those ambitions.
Wakeham however has wisely focused her efforts on the here and now, and “making it right for the Octagon”. Bolton may not yet be Off Broadway but that doesn’t stop the production and its hard-working cast from aiming high, creating a polished yet very moving show that is a real treat for local audiences.
Performance seen on 22 September 2022.
Price – tickets from £15.
Images by Pamela Raith.