'Hadestown' review – the spellbinding West End incarnation of this beloved folk musical was worth the wait

Read our review of Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera Hadestown, now in performances at the Lyric Theatre to 22 December.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s been an extraordinary journey for Hadestown. If not quite as dramatic as Orpheus and Eurydice trekking through the Underworld, it’s still been almost 20 years of wandering for this distinctive musical: from Anaïs Mitchell’s personal passion project through several runs – including a vital stint at the National Theatre in 2018 – to Broadway (and eight Tony Awards), and finally this keenly anticipated West End production.

The Lyric is the perfect fit for such an exquisitely intimate piece. It’s Mitchell’s own poetic riff on that Ancient Greek tale of the musician who braves the afterlife in pursuit of the woman he loves. The aesthetics and sound world suggest Depression-era New Orleans, although its exact location and time period are left deliberately vague.

Even more so in this superb new British incarnation, in which the cast all use their natural accents. That means we get Dónal Finn’s Irish Orpheus (rooting him in another great folk tradition), Grace Hodgett Young’s grounded, no-nonsense East Midlands-accented Eurydice, and, most strikingly, Melanie La Barrie’s Trinidadian Hermes. In fact, with her dapper silver suit, expressive patois and roof-raising, soulful vocals, La Barrie just about walks off with the show.

But she also has an important role to play in making Orpheus a more likeable character – a niggling issue the last time I saw Hadestown. His character has been thoughtfully reframed: yes, he’s still a penniless, self-involved artist who doesn’t notice his girlfriend is starving, but he’s now more of a socially awkward, otherworldly innocent, and Hermes emphasises that he’s an abandoned orphan too.

Finn adds his own gentle charm and a shiver-inducing falsetto, while Hodgett Young – who made such an impressive debut in Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard – is well on her way to becoming a musical theatre superstar. She brings such authenticity to the world-weary runaway Eurydice; when she expresses her love for Orpheus, she’s physically shaking, terrified at admitting this dangerous vulnerability. Add in a wry wit, and that incredibly pure singing voice, and she’s a force to be reckoned with.

So too is Gloria Ontiri as Persephone, who, trapped “down below” by husband/captor Hades (which in turn has caused a climate crisis), self-medicates with moonshine. Ontiri reels around the stage, dropping into a wild backbend as she sustains a big, brassy note, somehow sensual, desperate and a steely survivor all at once.

Zachary James’s Hades is the only misfire here. He’s a thuggish business baddie, running a hellish factory with a sort of camp glee. It’s a much bigger performance than anyone else is giving, and not remotely scary, which lowers the stakes. It doesn’t help (and this isn’t his or Mitchell’s fault) that his talk of building a wall to keep undesirables out now feels like a clunky Donald Trump reference.

However, the three slinky, snarky Fates (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel) are fabulous, and the small but hard-working chorus form the backbone of Rachel Chavkin’s beautifully crafted production. Though relatively unobtrusive, there are some enthralling moments – particularly “Wait For Me”, lit by miners’ head torches and swinging lamps.

Rachel Hauck’s atmospheric saloon bar set is a delight, while Mitchell’s eclectic score – jazz, folk, blues, gospel, sometimes a whisper, sometimes operatic or anthemic – is gorgeously played by the onstage band. Trombonist Daniel Higham is simply knockout.

The plot does lose momentum in the second half, with a few superfluous songs slowing the action. But the quiet power of this singular show, which demonstrates the magic of a shared story, and how such a collective effort can change the world, is undeniable. This spellbinding West End production was well worth the wait.

Hadestown is at the Lyric Theatre through 22 December. Book Hadestown tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Hadestown (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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