So what is new about Michael Greif’s production of Dear Evan Hansen, the multi-garlanded Broadway hit, which has music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land and The Greatest Showman) and a script by Steven Levenson? Most joyously, its British star. Sam Tutty, making his West End debut, is quiveringly good. Most strikingly, its bold weirdness in tackling the subject of grief tourism. Most hauntingly, its pervasive lack of ease: there is wit but no giant jolly sunbursts. The show is part of the current remaking of the musical: it murmurs as well as shouts, and contains as much social embarrassment as emotional turmoil.
Dear Evan Hansen is not the first musical to feature teenage pain and suicide: Spring Awakening (2006) had both. But this is a very 21st-century story: fuelled by social media (laptop screens slide across the stage), taking for granted a need for full confessionalism which will make some (me) queasy. The “loser” hero, friendless and transfixed by anxiety, has his life transformed when he is thought to have been the confidant of a thuggish schoolfellow who has killed himself. He turns the misconception into a lie, consoling the dead boy’s family by inventing a close friendship with their bullying son, and causing his own popularity to soar. At school everyone wants to claim closeness to the suicide, made glamorous by death: a cult develops, with badges, wristbands and fund-raising campaigns, and tweeting of fabricated emails. The creepiness and the comfort of this is especially well caught by Nicole Raquel Dennis, avid and lonely, and by Jack Loxton, comic and calculating like a teenage politician. It is a lie that at first brings happiness and then recoils on its perpetrator and his unwitting mother, played with fury and pain by Rebecca McKinnis.
Until the soppy perfunctory ending – with hugs and instructions about being true to yourself – the evening is vivid with almost every kind of teenage and adult embarrassment and exclusion: parental desertion, paralysing shyness, sibling hatred, financial humiliation, even (newly fashionable) sweating. A few big ballads – notably You Will Be Found – land with an eyes-to-the-sky expansiveness. Yet often speech and song dip in and out of each other, interwoven in conversational melancholy, given a pulse of urgency by guitar strums. Tutty handles this expertly. He brims with all sorts of tiny violence: he plucks at his shirt; he squirms as if he’s trying to escape his skin; his words are often explosive spurts. Yet every now and then his falsetto floats high above everything else, as if to show what Evan could be one day.
Why stage Touching the Void? Because it was there? It is obviously perverse to heave a mountain on to the stage without help of special effects, and to follow a tale of (literal) suspense when its ending is well known.
Yet Tom Morris’s Bristol Old Vic production, adapted by David Greig from Joe Simpson’s book, excels. It dramatically projects Simpson’s Andean ordeal: dropped with a broken leg into a crevasse when his climbing partner, assuming him dead, cut the rope from which he dangled. It dares the audience to ask themselves what they would do if trapped or holding the end of the rope. It makes a play about imaginative as well as physical endurance.
Greig’s adaptation is illuminating. He turns the voice in Simpson’s head into a tormenting hallucination of his sister, who nags him to drag himself out of the abyss. He creates a nerdy non-climbing hippy who lightens the action. He catches an authentic-sounding bluff lingo: “bit of a cheeky one”, a climber says when faced with an impossible ascent. Fiona Hampton, Patrick McNamee, Josh Williams and Angus Yellowlees act with unshowy strength.
Yet the triumph of Morris’s production is to steer events primarily through Ti Green’s set and Jon Nicholls’s sound design. The mountain begins as an idea: a pile of rickety chairs and tables by the side of the proscenium arch. A peanut is held up against a table to give a sense of scale. Hampton turns this into a place of risk and achievement as, roped for climbing, she seeks a foothold on smooth surfaces, and eventually arrives giddyingly high above the stalls clinging to the proscenium arch – to applause. Then Simpson and his partner appear on what looks like a dinosaur’s skeleton, a fragile structure swivelled sideways to the audience; around them is the noise of scrabbling scree and hoovering blasts of wind. The final scene is entirely realistic: a huge photograph of Siula Grande, looming white and chiselled and in front of it, a small orange tent, which glows like a night light in a freezing world. So the unthinkable is imagined and the imaginary becomes true. A story of survival and of the theatre.
#WeAreArrested, a joint production with the RSC, has been adapted by Pippa Hill and Sophie Ivatts from the book by Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of a Turkish newspaper who was arrested in 2016 and charged with espionage, for publishing evidence that Turkish state intelligence had been secretly sending weapons into Syria. This is a fine distillation, though I think an edge is lost by not making the Turkish setting plain – particularly at the Arcola, which has a tradition of Turkish-influenced work. On the whole, specificity does not prevent work resonating widely – rather the reverse. The overused appeal to Kafka does not seem exaggerated here.
Dündar, played with an electric shrewdness by Peter Hamilton Dyer, begins by saying that a blank wall can be a spur to the imagination. He proved this when placed in solitary confinement, where he set himself to conjure feasts and festivity from meagre ingredients: a slab of bread is magicked into a pile of sweetmeats. He learns to make a cheese toastie by wrapping cheese and bread in a carrier bag and putting it between the bars of a radiator. He devises a way of decorating his coloured cell by sticking newsprint on to steamed glass and scraping off the ink with a razor blade: “I dip into the red jacket of a jet-set crown prince to paint a rose.” He ends up released but in exile – separated from his wife and son. His family are played, as are all colleagues and officials, by Jamie Cameron and Indra Ové; the stage is bare apart from a table and coloured darts, sent as missives from supporters. An important story in a modest space.
Star ratings (out of five)
Dear Evan Hansen ★★★★
Touching the Void ★★★★
Dear Evan Hansen is at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 2 May 2020