Friday 6 October 2023

The Book Thief

 Curve, Leicester

4th October, 2023

It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless

I was sixteen when I first read Markus Zusak’s 2006 novel The Book Thief. It was love at first sight. I was completely enamoured with Zusak’s words and the characters they conjured, as were many fellow readers the world over. As a novel that is so potently about words – their meanings, evocations, the power they can wield – it poses adaptors with a tricky conundrum in how to visualise and animate the written language. The 2013 film adaptation failed to seize the popular consciousness in the manner the book had, so how does the musical (adapted by novelist Jodi Picoult, Timothy Allen McDonald, and composers Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson) fare? First seen at the Octagon Theatre Bolton last year, this production works as a faithful adaptation that harnesses stage craft to create some wonderfully theatrical set pieces.

Famously narrated by Death (an omnipresent and omniscient Obioma Ugoala) we are guided through the suburbs of Nazi Germany, trailing young orphan, Liesel Meminger (played at this performance by Eirini Louskou) as she experiences the horrors of war and the wonderous escapism and heroism of the written word. Fostered by the kindly Hans Hubermann (Jack Lord) and his bristly wife Rosa (Mina Anwar), Liesel quickly grows in confidence and begins to commit small acts of rebellion – first by stealing pages from the charred embers of a Nazi book burning, and then by befriending the young Jewish man hidden in the basement. Fans of the novel will delight in spotting many memorable elements popping up in Picoult and McDonald’s book – from the frequent peppering of dialogue with the German swearwords ‘saumensch’ and ‘arschloch’, to the rich associations drawn between colour, emotion and memory. And, not least, to Death’s concluding thought: ‘I’m haunted by humans’.

Samsel and Anderson’s music is pleasant, and there's a variety of different styles at play, from the Oom-pah-pah-esqe “Late to the Party”, jazzier numbers like “Look at Jesse Owens”, to the more stirring numbers such as “In This Book”. Tom Jackson Greaves’ imaginative choreography translates Zusak’s powerful use of language into movement, capturing the spirit of the piece really elegantly (as did his work in Amélie). There are occasions where the piece feels a little overly choreographed but, overall, the creative team produce some lovely lyrical motifs that draw in the audience. They also provide emotional beacons throughout the piece, most notably in Liesel’s simple lullaby “Hello Stars” and, perhaps my favourite lyric of the night, ‘It was the wrong song, in the wrong key, but it was music nonetheless’. I initially had misgivings around the musicalisation of the story but these gems justify the form alone.

Picoult and McDonald have placed more emphasis on the contemporary links to Zusak’s narrative, which while heavy-handed are sobering nonetheless: ‘Mein Kampf – a best seller in 1930… and again in 2016’. Dramatically, the musical is at its best during Liesel and Max’s fantastical daydreams. The imaginary boxing match between Max and Hitler is neatly choreographed and excellently incorporates Sam Wilde’s puppets into the action. Similarly, “The Word Shaker” sequence is dramatically exciting in director Lotte Wakeham’s hands and the abstract story makes a fine platform for Wilde’s puppets. The rough, ragdoll-like beings are made of screwed up and discarded pages of books, with only basic identifiable features being picked out (Hitler’s moustache; Liesel’s plaits). This creative figurativism is a great theatrical way of demonstrating that language is at once a great leveller and a great weapon.

I also enjoyed the use of Dick Straker’s projections throughout the set. The somewhat crude line drawings are both evocative of Liesel’s inner world, while also creating a sense of reminiscence and unity with the source material (which features some stark yet beautiful illustrations). While the production doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of the novel – I feel the ending is a little rushed in what is otherwise an extremely well-paced show – Wakeham and co. produce some lovely moments which combine music, movement and narrative.

 The Book Thief plays at Curve, Leicester until 14th October. For further information please visit

Daniel Krikler (centre) as Max & the cast of The Book Thief. Credit Pamela Raith

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