The latest musical to have its world premiere in Greater Manchester is The Book Thief at Bolton Octagon – an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Markus Zusak, which was famously adapted into a Hollywood film.
The story follows the (mis)adventures of an illiterate German girl called Liesel Meminger, the titular “book thief”, during the Second World War. The Nazi’s book burning rituals only feed her appetite for books, a dangerous endeavour – though not as dangerous as her foster parents hiding a Jewish boxer in their basement. Over time, the boxer, Max, teaches Liesel the power of words – and, together, they plant seeds of kindness in a world set against them.
Whilst I have heard of The Book Thief, I have never read the book or seen the film so I got to watch the musical unaware of its happenings. Of course, anything set during the Second World War and the Holocaust is going to be harrowing, but I did not know the individual fates of the characters. Of course, I expected sheer tragedy – which is why the ending surprised me. Still, I left the theatre drowned in my own tears – tears of both sadness and happiness.
With what’s going on in the USA at the moment (states literally banning books), the story is, sadly, timely – and the musical makes sure to acknowledge this, without being too forceful or preachy. For instance, the Narrator mentions that Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kempf’ was a best-seller in the 30s – “and then again in 2016”. He leaves it for the audience to work out.
However, later in the play, the Narrator (now playing a Nazi), says, “Make Germany great again” – which was on the nose and a little too obvious. Parallels should be drawn artistically and subliminally, or you risk patronising your audience. The writers could have achieved the same sentiment without appropriating Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.
The musical brilliantly balances a variety of emotions and feelings, from tragedy to comedy. The end of the first act is especially spine-tingling. It even ends with the display of two huge Nazi banners, much to my discomfort; I could feel my eyes growing larger with horror. I must admit, it felt a little weird clapping to the display of Swastikas; I clapped cautiously.
The casting was perfect. The young actors playing Liesel and Rudy were exceptional; they are surely going places. Their young love (will they, won’t they?) was entertaining and adorable. The actress playing Liesel, in particular, channelled so many emotions; she’s a captivating star that has already mastered the skill of acting.
Ryan O’Donnell (Tina – original West End cast) was everything you want in a narrator: charming, striking, perplexing – Who is he and how does he know all this? I wondered.
Jack Lord and Danielle Henry (Emmerdale) were incredible as Liesel’s foster parents (Hans and Rose, respectively). Their chemistry was fantastic, and even though Rosa was sharp with Hans, her love for him was never in question.
Perhaps my favourite character, though, was Max – played to perfection by Daniel Krikler. I love that they cast a Jewish actor to play the role of Max (if his name didn’t give it away, his stunning Ashkenazi features sure did)!
Not only did this casting allow accuracy, understanding and representation; it also allowed Krikler to honour his ancestors in a cathartic triumph. It must have been challenging to transport himself to a time where he would have been persecuted merely for existing – especially given the recent rise of antisemitism – but the result was powerful, and I hope he finds solace in this. In the programme, he dedicates this performance to the memory of Sylvia and Esther Cohn. Mazel, Daniel – I am sure that you have made them proud.
Whilst every single member of the cast deserves great praise, I do take an issue with the colourblind casting employed by the production. For the most part, colourblind casting is commendable; theatre is escapism, it’s a fantasy. If race is unimportant to the story, why should the race of the actors matter?
However, The Book Thief is not one of those stories; on the contrary, race is inherent and intrinsic to the story. The Nazis believed in racial purity and White supremacy so having a Black actor play a Nazi and two brown actresses (one of whom “passes”) play German civilians is a questionable decision. It almost sanitises the racism of the Nazis. The play repeatedly addresses antisemitism but seemingly bypasses the wider racism and White supremacy.
Whilst some of the casting is questionable, choosing to host this world premiere at Bolton Octagon was a brilliant decision. The Octagon is a versatile, modern theatre space. The stage is on the floor, and the seats are tiered. There is a small circle that is joint to the top level of the stage. The spectacular set design and terrific lighting transported us to the past; the contemporary surroundings blurred into the background as we watched the heart-wrenching events unfold. We were then returned to modern times – though asked to reflect on what we just witnessed, experiences and, hopefully, learned.
As aforementioned, the second act had me in tears. I was overcome with emotion – a real mixture of emotions: horror, sadness, relief, joy – but that’s just life, isn’t it? At its core, that’s what The Book Thief is: a story about life – narrated by death.
The Book Thief is playing at Bolton Octagon until 15th October. Come steal a seat!