sun 15/12/2019

Dear Evan Hansen, Noël Coward Theatre review - this social outcast will steal your heart | reviews, news & interviews

Dear Evan Hansen, Noël Coward Theatre review - this social outcast will steal your heart

Dear Evan Hansen, Noël Coward Theatre review - this social outcast will steal your heart

A stirring new musical tackles missed connections in the internet age

Unsocial media: teenager Evan Hansen (Sam Tutty, centre) feels helplessly aloneMatthew Murphy

Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen is an institution in the States, running on Broadway since 2016 and currently on its second year of a national tour. It also made a star of original leading man Ben Platt, now appearing in Netflix’s The Politician – and this long-awaited West End production could well do the same for the exceedingly talented 21-year-old Sam Tutty.

Tutty plays the titular Evan, a 17-year-old high school senior suffering from debilitating social anxiety. His well-meaning, divorcée mother, Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis), has him on medication and seeing a therapist, however her necessary absence – she works as a nurse’s aide and takes paralegal classes at night – exacerbates the gulf between them. But when another troubled student, Connor (Doug Colling), steals a letter Evan wrote to himself as a therapy exercise, it’s misconstrued as a suicide note, addressed to his secret friend.

That draws Evan into the embrace of Connor’s wealthy but disconnected relations: mother Cynthia (Lauren Ward, pictured below with McKinnis), father Larry (Rupert Young) and – Evan’s long-time crush – sister Zoe (Lucy Anderson). With the help of “family friend” Jared (Jack Loxton), Evan fabricates more evidence of his supposed relationship with Connor. Memorialising him then becomes a school-wide activity, thanks to overzealous classmate Alana (Nicole Raquel Dennis), and goes far beyond school walls when a video of Evan’s speech about reaching out to those who feel alone goes viral.Dear Evan Hansen, Noel Coward TheatreWith an unusual attentiveness when it comes to complex plotting fuelled by each character’s rich interiority, Evan Hansen has an effectively tight focus, yet its themes are far-reaching and pertinent. It smartly addresses mental illness and depression, familial relationships and class difference, and how the internet age shapes communication and identity. The sense of self that Evan is both seeking and shying away from is far more nebulous when refracted through social media, and its exploration of deception feels ever more potent in Trump and Boriss post-truth world.

Thankfully, Michael Greif’s production is leavened with both sharp, satirical wit and silliness – as when Jared, in writing emails from “Connor”, inserts lewd jokes that a panicked Evan quickly excises, or when a student is praised for their “school-shooter chic” appearance. But there’s also a winning earnestness that fits both the adolescents’ self-serious experience and the parents’ candid despair. For the most part, this is a musical with real emotional heft, its raw, confessional songs going for the jugular – leaving audience members openly weeping.

Key to that response is the remarkable Tutty. He vividly physicalises Evan’s tics: rapid blinking, plucking at clothes as though they’re searing his skin, the wild flight of his arms to throw up a barrier when interactions with others go wrong. Words tumble out of his mouth, showing how his feverish brain is working overtime, analysing, whizzing in circles, critiquing everything he says and does. Crucially, too, he makes Evan’s deception understandable by showing how each lie is a kind of wish fulfilment: the friendship he’s always wanted, the parents, the security. It’s also a way he can finally communicate – telling the truth via fabrication – and connect to others, offering Connor’s family a sunnier version of their son when they most need it, and in turn building Evan’s confidence (pictured below).Dear Evan Hansen, Noel Coward TheatreThat’s not to say he’s entirely let off the hook, since the musical demonstrates how you can be both victim and perpetrator simultaneously – although a rushed second half does fall short of interrogating the wider implications, and somewhat abandons its secondary characters, in favour of a neat conclusion to Evans journey. Tutty perhaps exacerbates that by emphasising his intense vulnerability, endearing eagerness to please and boyish distress at a key point.

However, McKinnis gives a blistering rendition of one of the strongest songs, and also explores Heidi’s darker side: pride gets in the way of her accepting help, even though she implores Evan to accept hers. As Connor’s hollowed-out parents, Ward and Young’s quiet desolation is utterly heart-wrenching, while Loxton is mischievously funny as Jared, Dennis brings blinkered intensity to Alana, Colling provides an inscrutable Connor, and Anderson wrestles believably with reforming her view of an unlikeable brother. All beautifully handle the contemporary pop-rock score – which, if pretty unvarying in its guitar-led balladry, does work well in serving both characters and narrative.

David Korins’ set is dominated by Peter Nigrini’s projections on column-like panels, crawling with social media feeds, kickstarters and videos. We see how quickly something can spin out of control: grief becoming performative, exploited and monetised, then subject to a vitriolic backlash. Placing the actors amongst them is a perfect distillation of the premise: that in this era of constant communication, we can feel even more profoundly alone; as Evan’s first song has it, “on the outside, always looking in”. Yet there’s a stirringly hopeful message here, refining Heidi’s suggestion that Evan reinvent himself in college. Instead, the show makes a bald plea for self-acceptance, and for kindness, towards ourselves and others. A pat sentiment, perhaps, but worth sharing – and if this modern fable speaks loudest to a new generation of theatregoers, then it’s one we can all cheer.

@mkmswain

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