A play about the power of words has never been more relevant. Political rhetoric has brought this country to its knees and the USA to the brink of civil war. And as the narrator in The Book Thief points out, Adolf Hitler had no armies when he started his journey to power, only words and his book Mein Kampf.

The Book Thief started life as a novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak, but rapidly became identified as a novel for young adults. Some 16 million copies and one film later, it has become a piece of musical theatre, which had its world premiere at Bolton Octagon last week. As befits a premiere, the theatre was packed. 

Press nights are usually busy. Theatres want the show to look successful when the press are in, so they often paper the house, giving away tickets to special guests and friends of the actors. This one was different. Yes, judging by the whistles and cheers, there were quite a lot of industry people in the room, but there were also the writers, the composers, the producers, the investors, all wanting to see how their new baby was received into the world.

Normally, world premieres of musicals with an eye on the West End take place in the bigger theatres, so it’s a bit of a coup for the Octagon to get this opportunity. They could not normally afford the resources a new musical requires.

The Octagon’s artistic director Lotte Wakeham and her team have done a brilliant job. They have created an ensemble who sing, dance and act together as though they have been doing it for years. The extremely clever set by Good Teeth (Victoria Smart and James Perkins) allows the cast to transition seamlessly from interior to exterior, from town to countryside, from boxing ring to Nazi rally.

Ah yes, the Nazi rally. Wakeham and the adapters, Jodi Picoult, Timothy Allen McDonald, Elyssa Samsell and Kate Anderson, have created a coup de théâtre at the end of act one which involves a Nazi rally. It leaves you both wanting to clap and not wanting to clap. You applaud the theatrical power, but not the sentiment. There’s also a  musical number set in a beer hall where Nazis are celebrating two new members. It’s beautifully staged and acted, and you want to clap. But what are you applauding? It felt uncomfortable. Maybe it should.

In such a fine ensemble it would be invidious to pick out anyone for special mention, but I’m going to do it anyway. Ryan O’Donnell as the narrator, a part we learn a lot more about at the end, keeps us firmly in the action while commenting on it, and he has a lovely singing voice. But the show is really about the children. Charlie Murphy plays nine-year-old Rudy with huge energy and charm and precision, and we firmly believe that he wants a kiss from Liesel, also nine-years-old, but doesn’t resent it when she says no.

Liesel, the eponymous Book Thief, is consummately played by Niamh Palmer. I’ve seen Palmer’s work before as she’s an alumnus of Oldham Theatre Workshop, and she’s always good, but here she excels. She is on stage almost continuously, she sings solos, indeed she has the first solo number in the show, she sings duets, and carries the force of the story. I’ve never seen anyone look so surprised at a standing ovation at the end of a show. She’d better get used to it.

If I have a quibble, and, dear reader, you know I often have a quibble, it is that Liesel’s motives and the strength she drew from her book thievery somehow got lost in the busyness of everything else. And the ending is a bit of a surprise for someone who doesn’t know the book or the film. The ending relates to a narrative trick I won’t reveal, but it was, I felt, unsatisfactory. Go and see what you think. You have until October 15.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Pamela Raith

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The Book Thief is at Bolton Octagon until October 15, 2022. For more information, click here.