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A Little Life - Savoy Theatre

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

“I don’t like it, but I have to stay,” a man in my row sighed to a fellow theatregoer during the interval, referring to his wife being riveted by the stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life. He kept calling things out, I think inadvertently and involuntarily, in his native language during the ghastliest moments in the show, and I couldn’t help thinking he would have been more at home seeing something like Crazy For You. Or maybe the previous show at the Savoy Theatre, Pretty Woman the Musical. Bits of this show are, frankly, quite boring, with moments of stillness and silence that just don’t make for great theatre, as though there to stretch the show out to its published three hours and forty minutes running time.

There is one interval. Nobody wasted it: the foyers, bars and toilets were chaotic. It’s a wonder nobody was hospitalised, with the number of people forcing their way past me as I queued to get out of the auditorium, queued for the loo, queued for the bar, and queued to get back into the theatre proper again. Having people barging past in that last queue was weird: had they forgotten the concept of numbered seating?

And what on earth was going on with Eric Sleichim’s sound design? There were very irritating elongated screeches that kept permeating the dialogue, and proved far more distracting than a woman whose coughing fit was so severe towards the end of the first half she eventually caused a show stop. Jan Versweyveld’s video design didn’t do very much for the show, either, with relentless images of what were probably streets and sidewalks of New York City (never been, haven’t got a clue what they really look like) – another useless and unnecessary distraction. I’m not sure, either, what the ‘on stage seating’ was supposed to achieve, other than increasing the overall audience capacity: they got a bad deal, with the characters spending far more time facing those of us in the usual seats than talking upstage. Any semblance of a living room ambience in any living room scenes is rendered impossible with the street view videos and rows of people sat on stage in what looked like rather uncomfortable seating.

I hadn’t realised I would be attending the final performance: I saved on the cost of a West End programme (they had sold out), and left the theatre even later than planned, on account of speeches from ‘Emily’ and ‘Ben’, the show’s producers – they weren’t listed on the production’s website and, as I say, I didn’t have a programme to refer to. Across three venues (Richmond, Harold Pinter and Savoy theatres, all in the ATG theatre portfolio) and 133 performances over a five-month period, nobody in the cast missed a single show. It’s probably a correct claim, inasmuch as I don’t recall the West End Understudies X account (we can’t call it Twitter any more) saying an understudy was going on in A Little Life.

Coughing, which came from various patrons in the second half as opposed to just one, soon gave way to sobbing. Perhaps I’m just a heartless so-and-so but I didn’t join in with the water works, and not because I was attempting to be a ‘macho, macho man’, in the words of the Village People song. I think I was just numbed by all the abuse and traumatic experiences of various kinds being portrayed. This production goes for it with the fake blood, and several rounds of self-harm, and there is nothing in the way of relief from what is an unabating series of awful episodes of Jude St Francis’ (James Norton) life. Even Les Misérables has the Thenardiers, who may not necessarily be amusing, depending on one’s disposition, but at least provide some momentary relief from the otherwise heavy storyline.

Willem (Luke Thompson), Jude’s best friend, shows a wide range of human emotions, from empathy with Jude to sheer frustration as Jude’s miscellaneous issues and secrets from the past leave him still reticent to open up and talk things through. I was quite drawn, though, to Zubin Varla’s Harold, who dotes on Jude so much he formally adopts him, providing him with the father figure he never had before. But moments of warm humanity are few and far between.

Life is shit, and then you die. It’s not the uplifting message needed at a time when many people are experiencing hardship of various kinds, even if the show’s website has an extensive section of ‘post-show support resources’ and advice on what to do if urgent mental health support is required. Dr Traylor (Elliot Cowan) had ostensibly sound reasons for a ten-day course of medical treatment, but counting each of them out stood out to me as an example of dragging things out too long.

I had a damn good view (stalls row C if you really must know), and I was pleased to discover there will be, briefly, another life for A Little Life, if only because it’s not the sort of show that can be fully appreciated on a single viewing. So yeah, I’ve booked to see it in the cinema later this year. There might be things I will pick up on it the second time around. And I wonder if we’ll get to see all of James Norton and Luke Thompson again or if they’ll pixelate their third legs. I still recall the total nudity in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein – underwear was kept on for the cinema screenings. I know it’s not the salient point in a show that has much to say about childhood abuses and how their lasting impacts manifest in certain behaviours well into adulthood. Still, it’s an almost inevitable talking point.

It’s not exactly a train smash of a show, really, but the constant bleakness and misery left some emotionally overwhelmed. And then there was me. The production was so good at depicting hardship and woe I found myself responding with cold, hardened cynicism.

Three stars

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