‘A Little Life’ West End review - An emotional, unforgettable show
Read our four-star review of Ivo van Hove’s crushing and poignant adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling novel, starring James Norton and Luke Thompson.
“It’s not worth making art at all if the only thing you want is for everyone to like it,” a program note from author Hanya Yanagihara reads in the program for A Little Life, the almost-four-hour emotional marathon of a show based on her best-selling novel, playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre. However, love it or hate it, no one will forget A Little Life, and that’s what makes a great theatrical experience.
Just like with her widely acclaimed book, the show will also have its critics, and even the diehard fans (of which there are many) will have to come to terms with their connection to the material, which largely centers on graphic sexual trauma, self-harm, and child abuse.
It’s not an easy show to recommend, because it’s not an easy show to watch, as master director Ivo van Hove has taken the seemingly neverending climactic moments of the over 700-page book and translated them into a series of connected vignettes, each subsequently more difficult to witness than the last, mimicking Yanagihara’s semi-nonlinear timeline which deals in character studies and flashbacks.
Van Hove has conceived the production, alongside Yanagihara and co-adaptor Koen Tachelet, with fervent loyalty to the story about four college friends who find their New York City lives veering off in different directions as they mine the depths of their friend Jude’s unknowable past. While the book has pages to breathe between critical scenes, van Hove’s production paces quickly through the crucial moments, giving less time to develop character relationships and intimacies and focusing squarely on the underlying trauma of it all.
Some passages are lifted verbatim from the novel, an effective device, particularly as monologues. The newly minted Olivier winner Zubin Varla is compelling in these moments as Harold, Jude’s professor-turned-father, and brings Yanagihara’s text about parenthood and love to soaring life. These character explorations and reflections are where the production reaches out and grabs the audience by the heart and doesn’t let go.
The tight-knit ensemble, led by the captivating James Norton, keeps the audience engaged as the unthinkable events unfold. Norton has the hardest job among them, anchoring the story as Jude St. Francis, an abandoned orphan whose trauma-filled past still haunts him as he navigates an outwardly successful adulthood. Norton’s performance threads the needle between Jude’s joy and sorrow, and he pours himself into the immensely physical and psychological aspects of the role, giving his absolute all to the performance.
Luke Thompson plays the beating heart of the piece: Jude’s best friend and confidant Willem. Thompson must usher the character from apathetic party boy to deeply intellectual and empathetic partner, and he is present and rooted in the show’s message of love throughout.
Omari Douglas is doing some career-best work as JB, the tortured artist whose ego inhibits him at times, while Zach Thompson rounds out the foursome in the small-yet-memorable role, the architect Malcom. Elliot Cowan finds a way to weave charisma with horror in the difficult assignment of playing a trifecta of Jude’s abusers, and Emilio Doorgasingh brings a deep heart to Jude’s loyal doctor Andy.
One of the van Hove’s main interpretations of the novel is in how he incorporates Ana, the social worker who guides Jude in a time of crisis. Ana comes in and goes from Jude’s life very quickly, but in the production, she serves as a sort of narrator and empathetic guide for Jude and the audience through the difficult moments. Nathalie Armin’s performance augments the poetic role.
The entire production feels immersive throughout the space with audience members sitting onstage, Jan Versweyveld’s moody lighting and looming video projections of NYC streets, and Eric Sleichim’s haunting sound design and score, played by a quartet of talented string players.
However, what comes out of A Little Life is not the excessive trauma and graphic abuse, but rather, how amid these terrors, the characters remain steadfast in their dedication to one another, searching for common ground and belonging even while struggling with trust and intimacy. Their friendship at all costs grounds the story and the experience. We should all be so lucky to find their loyalty and love.
A Little Life is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre through 18 June before moving to the Savoy Theatre on 4 July through 5 August. Book A Little Life West End tickets at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Book A Little Life tickets at the Savoy Theatre.
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