We’d originally planned to see this as part of my big birthday celebrations in April 2020 – but guess why it had to be cancelled…?! Anyway what’s a 20-month wait between friends? #Youwillbefound says the ubiquitous hashtag, which erroneously had led me to believe that this show was to do with finding (or not finding) a missing person, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
In fact, I’m really glad that I didn’t know the story of the show until I saw it, because that’s its most fascinating and rewarding aspect by far. And if you haven’t seen it yet and are planning to go, may I suggest you skip the rest of this paragraph and the next. You’ll thank me in the long run! Evan Hansen is an extremely anxious and nervous 17 year old, with a hard-working but frequently absent one-parent mum. His therapist has recommended he write himself regular letters, telling himself how today has been good or I did this well or I had fun doing this, etc. Unfortunately, when he prints off one of these Dear Evan Hansen letters at school, the printed copy is taken, read and kept by school bully and drug addict Connor Murphy. Connor teases and torments him about what he might do with the letter, particularly as Evan has referred to Connor’s sister Zoe as a potential love interest.
Connor doesn’t come into school for a few days, whilst Evan is left to fret about it. Then comes the bombshell – Connor has taken his own life, and signed the Dear Evan Hansen letter as though it were his suicide note. Connor’s parents now think that Evan was a good friend to Connor and want to know more about their friendship – and Evan can’t bring himself to tell them the truth as it would be so hurtful. As a result an entire myth is created at school and online about how great a guy Connor was – there’s even a memorial fund set up in his name, and Evan’s videos about Connor go viral. But will the truth ever come out, that this is all a lie and that Connor was cruel and unliked, and that Evan is a fantasist? And what will Zoe think? You’ll have to see the show to find out!
And if you’ve jumped the last two paragraphs, welcome back. Suffice to say, it’s a creative and highly inventive story that sets up some fascinating moral dilemmas – although I can’t help but think there should be trigger warnings a-plenty! Most of the characters are essentially good people with their hearts in the right place, and even those that aren’t have some redeeming features. The trouble is, the characters overstep the mark. Evan himself can’t put an end to spinning his stories of a good relationship with Connor, because that would be cruel to his parents. Family friend Jared likes the fact that Evan relies on him for computer/Internet security support, and milks that reliance for all it’s worth. Alana, who sets herself up as the Co-President of the Foundation, becomes more and more power hungry as she sidelines everyone else involved so that in the end she wants to take all the glory. Even Connor’s parents step in to assume a quasi-parental responsibility for Evan, much to the suppressed fury of Evan’s real mother, as revealed in a delightfully cringey dinner party scene that gives you goosebumps with awkwardness.
The combined scenic and projection design by David Korins and Peter Nigrini is incredibly effective and stuns you with its attention to social media detail, as it bombards you with Twitter feeds and status updates. The interaction between the projections and what the characters on stage are seeing or writing on their screens works extremely well. I was, perhaps, a little surprised to see Microsoft Word on the projections in a relatively early incarnation – it’s pretty obvious that Evan Hansen hasn’t upgraded to Windows 10 yet. Matt Smith’s band plays Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score with attitude and pizzazz, and although I didn’t find the songs particularly memorable, I thought the arrangements were tremendous.
I was very much looking forward to seeing Sam Tutty in the leading role as I had heard such good things about him, so was a tiny bit disappointed to find that Evan Hansen was played by the alternate Evan, Marcus Harman, in his professional stage debut. I shouldn’t have worried; his performance is terrific. Expressing the character’s nervousness and anxiety to perfection, he commands the stage with an immensely likeable presence and is definitely a name to watch for in the future. Also on her West End debut, Iona Fraser is brilliant as the pushy Alana, a superb study of someone who allows success and attention to go to her head, so that what originally was an endearing character becomes a big-headed nightmare.
On yet another West End debut, in the role of Zoe we saw understudy Samantha Mbolekwa, who was excellent showing the transition from difficult, sulky, bereaved teenager to the warmer, more mature Zoe who allows Evan into her affections. It’s a sensitive and endearing performance. And Rebecca McKinnis is great as Evan’s mother Heidi, trying to juggle all the different elements of her life in order to keep a roof over their heads. But everyone gave a great performance, and the audience gave it a massive reception.
However… such a fascinating set-up might inevitably lead to an anti-climactic ending, and for me I was disappointed with how the story turned out; too easy, and too unrealistically charitable. The show is a little overlong and gets bogged down with a lot of schmaltz and self-indulgence. It appealed very much to me on a cerebral level, but I missed out on the emotional attachment to the show in which clearly almost everyone else in the packed audience was revelling. Somewhere along the line I found myself unable to buy into the story’s conclusion – so whilst I really enjoyed the production and the performances, I just couldn’t accept the ending. Hey ho, it’s probably me. I’m sure the show will continue for a very long time to come!
Production photos by Matthew Murphy