No matter how good a person you may be, everyone reading this review will have told a lie at some point in their lives. The big question is why do people lie? Many people lie to protect their own feelings, self-esteem, self-confidence, or other personal emotion. Others though will lie to protect the feelings of others and spare someone else pain or hurt. And it’s to this second group that the hero of Dear Evan Hansen at the Noel Coward Theatre belongs, or does he?
Evan is a 17-year-old high school senior with severe social anxiety problems. Apart from Jared, he has no real friends. In fact, as Jared reminds him, they are family friends and not real friends at all. In an effort to get over his anxiety, Evan’s therapist Dr Sherman has told him to write a letter to himself every morning detailing what is going to be good about that day. It’s the first day of the new school year and despite the cajoling of his mother, Evan has real trouble believing that anything good will happen. A feeling that is reinforced after he meets over-enthusiastic Alana – then has a run-in with School bad boy – and possible drug addict – Connor Murphy, who pushes him down, much to the annoyance of Connor’s sister (and Evan’s unrequited secret love) Zoe. The day can’t really get much worse for Evan, and then he is called to the Principal’s office where he meets Connor and Zoe’s parents, and for all the right reasons, tells a lie that literally reverberates around the world.
I’m going to be honest and say that while I was looking forward to seeing Dear Evan Hansen, I sort of thought I knew roughly what it would be like. A loner with a limited number of friends does something, becomes popular, screws his friends over, mucks up, redeems themselves, big ending number before we all head off, feeling good about the world. Obviously, since the show is such a huge worldwide hit, it isn’t as simple as that, though Steven Levenson’s book does run along those lines a bit. However, what really makes Dear Evan Hansen into something special is the expansion of the standard story and some truly stand-out songs with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
So, let’s have a chat about Evan. As usual, I don’t want to give much away, but for people that have seen the show, there is a real split in opinion about what Evan does and why he does it. Some see him as a horrible manipulative person who sets out to make the most of a truly awful situation, whilst using his social anxiety as an excuse. Others feel that he is just a young man who, because of his naivety and wish to fit in, makes a mistake that escalates beyond anything he could have imagined. Personally, whilst I initially wasn’t that keen on Evan as a character, I quickly warmed to him and definitely felt that it was just his lack of social awareness sand immaturity that led him down a particular road. I also think that in his shoes I would have done the same thing – and probably for similar reasons.
Now, those who know me are aware that I find it easy to get emotionally involved in a show, but even I wasn’t prepared for my reaction to the story. And it wasn’t just me. I don’t think I’ve ever used the words ‘not a dry eye in the house’ in a review, but that is the only way to describe the audience by the end of the first act. The last section of the first act is so unbelievably powerful that I’m not sure I have the words to fully express my feelings as ‘You Will be Found‘ finished and the lights came up for the interval. Blown away doesn’t even come close. It wasn’t just the superb acting, or the story, it was also the thoughts behind them, and the relevance to the real world outside the theatre doors. The second act had a lot to live up to and certainly managed to exceed my expectations, especially the ending which did not go where I was expecting it to.
David Korins’ scenic design along with Peter Nigrini’s projection design provide a wonderfully contemporary world not only for Evan, his family and friends to inhabit but also to really enhance the story and music using the power of social media to get their message across. The acting is superb throughout and Sam Tutty is just perfect in the role of Evan and leads an incredibly strong cast in bringing this very human story to life. Every performance is perfectly nuanced, and every character feels so real.
I’m going to let you make up your own minds on the morality of Evan – and the other characters – but whether you decide he’s a hero or a monster doesn’t matter. Ultimately you are going to have one heck of a journey joining Evan on the rollercoaster that is his life.
Review by Terry Eastham
A timely and timeless new musical about struggling to connect in a hyperconnected world, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the winner of 3 Olivier Awards for BEST NEW MUSICAL, BEST ORIGINAL SCORE and BEST ACTOR. It is also the winner of two WhatsOnStage Awards and a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award.
Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4AU
Booking until 22 October 2022