Saturday 11 January 2020

Dear Evan Hansen, or, For Goodness Sake, Stop Lying!

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 4th January 2020.

In advance I was curious as to whether my judgement would agree with that of the Tony Awards voters who back in 2016 gave it the Best Musical accolade over Come From Away which I saw last year and really loved. I thought I might disagree (it has been known), I didn't expect to feel so antagonised by much of this show.

The story follows the Evan Hansen of the title, a young man with anxiety and it ultimately becomes clear wider psychological problems, through the challenges of high school. Following the suicide of a classmate, Connor, Hansen becomes swept into a web of gradually more complicated lies. Those lies are increasingly promulgated via technological means - fabricated e-mails, social media campaigns. To begin with the lies are structured around Hansen's fictitious relationship with the deceased, but it eventually becomes clear that the habit spreads much further.

The show does have perceptive things to say about the problematic nature of social media, teenage anxieties about belonging, and the potentially toxic culture of families and high schools but these were for me ultimately undermined by the story within which they are presented and the character of the "hero". I began to doubt when the parents of the deceased were allowed to meet alone with Hansen at the school after the suicide - this is a crucial moment for the unfolding of the plot - but I found it odd there would not be a member of staff present - or that Hansen wouldn't have been questioned about the paper tying him to the deceased by officialdom prior to any such meeting. Such a process would of course make it much less plausible that Hansen would succumb to the temptation/pressure of the meeting which sets off the remainder of the plot but the fact that something about the meeting didn't ring true for me undermined what followed.

Then there's the fact that Hansen persists in lies for about two thirds of the show. Notwithstanding the powerful effects of grief I just never quite believed that nobody would have asked any sustained questions about his narrative prior to that. Were school staff present then this would be far more difficult to sustain - which I'm sure is why we never meet any. But I also found it troubling in the case of Zoe Murphy (Connor's surviving sister) - there's a brief reference to her brother's potential for violence in relation to her, but this swiftly disappears - it didn't convince me that she wouldn't ask more questions. I also found it hard to root for, or indeed really care about a lead who persists for so long in doing exactly what I thought he ought not to be doing.

I also had this slight feeling during the lying two thirds of the show that there was an underlying mockery of form going on, or, at least, that the writers were suspicious about the nature of the Broadway musical. This, like the lies, made it harder then to buy into the apparent embrace of truth and conventions of form which ultimately comes.

Because, at about the two thirds mark, there's an abrupt switch (spoilers follow). Hansen suddenly admits everything - with an unsatisfactory lack of consequences. It's unbelievable to me that, given the amount of internet exposure the earlier lies have had, that the fact they were lies would never get out. The show seems to be critiquing our inability to communicate with each other, but it shies away from the communications/recriminations that seemed to me almost inevitable from Hansen's revelations, even if they did ultimately lead to forgiveness. The show did not, for me, earn it's nod towards a more uplifting ending.

Instead, for me the moment that rang truest was the desperation of Hansen's mother, and the memory of the day his father leaves them. When she sings about her son asking whether another truck is going to come and take Mummy away the simple image had an emotional punch absent from much else in the show.

There's no question this is a strong ensemble. Sam Tutty and Lucy Anderson making their west end debuts as Evan and Zoe are outstanding and I look forward to seeing what they go on to. Doug Colling (Connor) makes an effective duo (with Evan) and sometimes trio (adding Jack Loxton's Jared) and the idea of his ghost haunting them, particularly Evan, is one of the best ideas in the piece. Nicole Raquel Dennis is a forceful presence as Alana, and it would be interesting to see her in a more richly written role. Rupert Young as Connor and Zoe's father has the most interestingly written role of the adults - generally I'd say the writers are stronger when writing for men than women - and makes the most of it - but Rebecca McKinnis's Heidi Hansen really caught at my heart in the penultimate number.

David Korins's design hovers between abstract and realism - to some extent this fits a world where so much of life is determined to be virtually lived - but I wonder if it contributed to my feeling of often not buying into the narrative. There's a familiar heavy use of projections, this time by Peter Nigrini, which again fit the nature of the show but seeing this after, say, the Donmar's Privacy, they perhaps lack the freshness they may have had during the original Broadway run.

Almost as soon as the show ended, the audience rose to give it a standing ovation - so, at least on that measure, I was clearly very much in a minority in my more muted reaction. It also seems likely that I am not the target audience for the show - being neither a teenager nor a parent. In sum, a thought provoking afternoon, but one from which I came away feeling really quite ambivalent.

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