Australian-born, but of German and Austrian parentage, Markus Zusak hit the jackpot with his novel for children/young adults, The Book Thief, in 2005. His fable-like tale, about a young girl in Nazi Germany whose mild biblio-kleptomania is a means of coping with trauma and asserting humanity, has sold 16 million copies, been translated into over 60 languages, and was made into a film in 2013 that did well enough at the box office despite a critical panning.
Now comes the stage musical, courtesy of an American creative team headed by Jodi Picoult, herself a bestselling author, and Timothy Allen McDonald, co-writing the libretto. Music and lyrics are by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, a duo who wrote songs for the Disney short feature Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
In its favour, the staging by Octagon artistic director Lotte Wakeham is undeniably stylish, acted with verve, and most of the songs – the better ones reprised for good measure – are lushly appealing and at times affecting, albeit a pat soulfulness about the value of writing to take on the rhetoric of hate prevails.
The book’s boldest stroke was to make the narrator Death – and a flip, familiar figure at that. He recounts the antics of the heroine, Liesel, whom he encounters mourning her suddenly dead little brother, en route to their being adopted by a Munich couple, and who, at the boy’s funeral, snaffles the gravedigger’s handbook, the first of a few such thefts.
For some, that macabre quirkiness is Zusak’s triumph; for me it’s often a sorry distraction and even, as with the line “They were going to Dachau, to concentrate”, a disgrace. Here, Ryan O’Donnell’s insouciant ordinary man in a mac (the stage version of Death) doesn’t make you want to plug your ears; it’s as much observing as prattling.
That issue resolved, though, only sharpens the sense that Zusak doesn’t have much new to say about ordinary life under increasing totalitarianism, then war. The conceit of a copy of Mein Kampf being repurposed as a diary and much store being put on Leisel’s life-affirming jottings pushes the tale into the weird realm of ersatz Anne Frank.
As an evening, overall, it’s tastefully enough done, and it sidesteps the problem of Liesel’s enamoured young neighbour Rudy being infatuated with the American athlete Jesse Owens; in the book, he blacks up. (The pair were played nicely on press night by Niamh Palmer and Charlie Murphy.) It’s hard to begrudge the attempt, but something tells me it’s headed for theatre’s equivalent of the bargain book bin.
Until Oct 15. Tickets: 01204 520 661; octagonbolton.co.uk