Content warning: This review discusses the topic of suicide and grief within the context of the production.
Dear Evan Hansen is a tale of grief fuelled by the rush of social media and the digital age – and the title character, played by Sam Tutty, is victim to it in more ways than one. The critical error, as the leading actor navigates through the story of a teen who lies about the suicide of a classmate, is that his dialogue is delivered as fast as the scrolling message feeds behind him. Jolty and tetchy, there are moments where the wide-eyed student makes us laugh with just how easily flustered he can be. Yet Tutty’s commitment to the awkward persona sacrifices clarity and connection, right when the show – on such a sensitive subject matter as how we process loss – could do with a lot of it.
After Evan Hansen learns that said classmate, Connor Murphy, was found dead with a letter addressed to him in his pocket (albeit a letter Evan wrote to himself as part of a therapy assignment), the youngster decides it’s far better to be a little deceptive about his relationship with Connor than to reveal he was unpleasant to him and exacerbate his family’s grief. The musical ultimately raises – and explores – an interesting question around the projection of grief onto a present idea, and whether we should allow that lie to continue if it offers people closure. And when the songs and lyrics are written by the phenomenal talent behind La La Land, never has a white lie sounded so convincing. The closing number for Act One, You Will Be Found, is one of the most triumphant musical performances I have ever seen.
Though I should probably stress that instead of “relationship with Connor” I should have written “friendship with Connor”, seeing as the musical – originally from Broadway – comes with the casual homophobia often present in US high school musicals (see Be More Chill and Heathers). In what is otherwise an impressive number for its fluid rhythm, Sincerely Me is a whole song dedicated to making it crystal clear that Evan is Definitely Not Gay. Sigh.
To be clear, exceptional music and an intriguing plot make the West End production of Dear Evan Hansen a commendable production, but there are also elements which are incredibly frustrating in terms of their usage. The constant phone notification sounds playing before showtime is grating and overwhelming, rather than immersive. While there are instances of the long panels on stage complementing the action well with its portrayal of social media messages – such as livestream projections – most of the time, David Korins’ set feels tragically redundant. The bleary text messages may well be a reference to the blurring of truth and lies, but it is simply too jarring most of the time. When a large panel is unveiled at the back of the stage towards the end of the show, you can’t help but wonder whether one screen for all the social media messages could have made for a more impressive video design.
While a moving and magnificent musical, it’s unfortunate that it is a tad undermined by saying too much with too little space.
Dear Evan Hansen is now booking at the Noël Coward Theatre until 22 October 2022.
Delfont Mackintosh Theatres have not listed any access performances for this musical on their website.
Production Images: Matthew Murphy.