A Reviews Round-up for Ivo van Hove’s A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, starring James Norton, Omari Douglas, Luke Thompson, Zach Wyatt.
Reviews from London theatre critics are coming in following the opening night of A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
The much talked-about play runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June 2023, and then moves to the Savoy Theatre from 4 July to 5 August 2023.
The production is centred on Hanya Yanagihara’s multi award-winning and best-selling novel, adapted for the stage and directed by Olivier Award winner Ivo van Hove (All About Eve, A View From The Bridge, West Side Story).
A stellar cast includes James Norton (Happy Valley) as lawyer Jude, Omari Douglas (It’s A Sin, Cabaret) as artist JB, Luke Thompson (Bridgerton) as actor Willem, and Zach Wyatt (The Witcher) as architect Malcolm, alongside 2023 Olivier Award winner Zubin Varla (Tammy Faye) as Harold, Elliot Cowan (The Crown) as Brother Luke/Doctor Traylor/Caleb, Nathalie Armin (Home, The Doctor) as Ana and Emilio Doorgasingh (Game of Thrones) as Andy.
The story is about four college classmates in the US, who all move to New York to pursue their careers. The play is multi-layered with strong themes, including sexuality, friendship, race, abuse and addiction.
The show’s previews have even been controversial, with leaked pictures of James Norton, who appears naked in the play, published by select British press.
Ivo van Hove has previously directed the play in Amsterdam, Edinburgh, New York and Australia. It is adapted for the stage by Koen Tachelet, Ivo van Hove and Hanya Yanagihara.
Alongside Ivo van Hove, the creative team includes Koen Tachelet as Adapter; Jan Versweyveld for Set, Lighting & Video Design; An D’huys for Costume Design; Eric Sleichim for Music & Sound Design; Julia Horan for Casting; Susanna Peretz for Hair, Makeup & Prosthetics Design; Jeff James as Associate Director; Alistair Turner as Associate Set Designer; Simon Sherriff as Associate Lighting Designer; Rob Bettle as Associate Sound Designer; Mogzi as Associate Video Designer; Sara Green as Intimacy Director & Movement Coach; Bret Yount as Fight Director; Salvatore Sorce as Voice & Dialect Coach; Poppy Hall as Costume Supervisor; Chris Marcus And Jonathan Hall as Props Supervisor For Marcus Hall Props; Alice Wordsworth as Assistant Director; and Hugo Aguirre as Assistant Set Designer.
Read reviews from The Times, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard and more.
More reviews to follow.,
Book tickets to A Little Life at the Savoy Theatre in London
A Little Life reviews
"James Norton bares all in this lacerating tale of blood, guts and sexual predation"
"Ivo van Hove directs the Happy Valley star in this at times hard-to-watch portrait of a man ruined by others' cruelty"
"... Norton lays himself literally bare and enacts self-cutting harm. We’ve had male nudity in the West End before, but has it ever been in conjunction with such a mixture of blood, guts and sexual predation?"
"Norton is superb at suggesting hidden depths, that impassivity acquired in the exploitative company of a Catholic monk who first befriended then betrayed him, forcing him into child prostitution. The book has been accused of piling on the agony but it doesn’t feel gratuitous here."
"Elsewhere, Zubin Varla compels too as Jude’s kindly adoptive father, while Luke Thompson impresses as the determinedly amorous Willem. The grim vision of rallying humanity and ineradicable despair hits home, but here’s my content warning: the exposition-heavy script is as overstated as the accompanying string music – a little less of it, in fact a lot less of it, would help."
"James Norton’s sexually abused lawyer is spared no misery"
"Some called it torture porn, others a masterpiece. Ivo van Hove brings Hanya Yanagihara’s novel to the West End, complete with spurting blood, relentless sadism and not a little nudity"
"The nudity is hardly shocking in the mix of it all, and comes so often that we feel inured to the sight of men – mostly Norton – slipping out of their trousers. Where Yanagihara faced some charges of appropriation in her depiction of male friendship and gay desire, that criticism cannot be applied to this adaptation by Koen Tachelet, Van Hove and Yanagihara. The consensual sex, when it comes, does not seem gratuitous."
"There is something heroic in the staging of this story in the West End: resolutely bleak with no catharsis and cyclical violence, it is an almost anthropological study of pain. It is staged with utmost intelligence too"
"But for all its sophistication and searing qualities, it is a discomforting production. The gripe, for me, lies with Yanagihara’s original story, the shortcomings of which become all the more jarring on stage."
"... where Yanagihara’s book followed the trajectories of Jude’s friends to paint a compelling picture of their love towards Jude, here we only see flashes of this camaraderie and warmth, which leaves the story less textured, more unremittingly focused on abuse and its legacy."
"Harrowing performance in a troubling drama"
"There’s been a lot of talk about Norton’s onstage nudity, but it’s his naked emotional performance that is most striking — and most distressing. It’s a superb performance in a deeply troubling show."
"Running through Van Hove’s production is the fundamental importance of love — parental, sexual or friendly — and a fierce indictment of the abuse of it."
"There’s something here that is deeply unsettling. There are major problems translating the novel to stage that Van Hove has not been able to surmount, and issues within it are amplified... Most significantly, even Jude becomes little more than his trauma: despite being inside his experience, we don’t really know him. As the abuse and self-harm mount up, this becomes very disturbing; it feels as if we are not meeting him as a person, just watching him being obliterated."
"What’s not in doubt is the quality and commitment of the performances. There’s a real warmth, camaraderie and tenderness between the friends, while Zubin Varla brings a wealth of quiet kindness to Harold. And Norton is astonishing as Jude..."
"‘A Little Life’ Is Quite a Lot"
"Self-harm, lashings, child prostitution, rape: Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of the 2015 novel tests the audience’s trauma threshold."
"The play is beautifully acted but surpassingly bleak, and spectators may find their own threshold for trauma tested more than once. I know mine was."
"It’s not the fault of Douglas or Wyatt, both fine actors, that J.B. and Malcolm seem to fade from view as the play proceeds."
"The production owes an enormous amount to Norton, a likable and attractive stage-trained TV star in a role that playgoers might otherwise recoil from, and this performance is sure to be a contender for the Olivier Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Tonys. But I couldn’t help nodding in agreement when Willem remarks in the second act that he is “sometimes surprised” that Jude’s still alive. You emerge stunned at the sheer mercilessness of it all, but moved? By the acting, yes. But not the play."
"James Norton is astonishing in the most gruelling play I’ve seen"
"Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel is unrelenting but magnificent"
"The Dutch master director has transformed this 814-page headspinner of misery and suffering into a meandering bullet train of a three-hour 40-minute play... It is anchored by a towering central performance from James Norton, to whom the idea of taking life easy after BBC One’s Happy Valley obviously didn’t appeal."
"This is without doubt the most gruelling piece of theatre I can recall seeing; incredulous disbelief at the ordeals one man goes through mounts until we feel we can take no more. How much pain can one little life bear? Yet in the interstices of horror and abuse, there are transcendental moments of love and affection, beautifully played by the eight-strong cast. How Norton manages this performance once a day is astonishing, but to do it twice on matinée days is a feat of endurance that deserves some sort of medal for bravery."
"The deepening intimacy between him and Willem is tender but painful, as Jude’s layers of self-protection are stripped away. Will what lies beneath be strong enough to withstand the light of day?"
"James Norton is extraordinary"
"James Norton is astonishing in this pulverisingly brutal play based on the cult novel"
"... in distilling a rambling and excessive book into drama, Van Hove, whose adaptation was created with Yanagihara and Koen Tachelet, offers us an experience that feels closer to the dogged fatalism and catharsis of Greek tragedy. Leaner, nimbler and, with designs by Jan Versweyveld, visually indelible, this stage version liberates the twisted fairytale at the heart of the narrative, becoming more of a fable, more powerfully symbolic and less tangled in extraneous detail and portentous pontificating. It is so harrowing as to be nearly unbearable, yet it rarely wallows. In fact, it is a production of cool temperature, handling atrocity with clinical precision, and moments of grace with an economical elegance."
"Jude’s peers are underwritten in the book, a problem not completely solved here, though Douglas gives JB a vivid, volatile glamour, and Thompson’s Willem effectively combines gentle sweetness and virility. But Norton is extraordinary: a man pushed to the limits of endurance and beyond..."
"Ivo Van Hove’s Production of Hanya Yanagihara’s Novel Is More Admirable Than Moving"
"... there is plenty to admire in the committed, heartfelt performances of the company of eight actors led by an emotionally unsparing James Norton"
"For better and worse, the adaptation by Koen Tachelet, Ivo van Hove and Yanagihara herself is extremely faithful to the novel"
"For all the wit and care of the performances, Malcolm and JB register as one-note ciphers because the adaptation cuts them down to little more than plot functionaries. The impressive Thompson fares far better as his character ultimately develops a relationship that takes him far beyond merely being Jude’s affable, “heteronormative” roommate. The focus is, in every sense, on versatile British screen favorite Norton"
"Van Hove’s uncluttered, unfussy, utterly controlled production is, for wholly well-intentioned reasons, explicit about pain... Despite a moment of undoubted shock and the winning of sympathy for Jude’s plight, ultimately the work on display feels more admirable than moving."
"A play with more than just James Norton stripping off"
"A play that needs trigger warnings."
"Director Ivo van Hove distils Hanya Yanagihara’s novel into three and a half hours of utterly compelling theatre to examine a life lived under the scourge of guilt and a self-imposed exile from absolution."
"Norton’s courageous performance makes Jude’s torment almost Biblical..."
"James Norton bares his soul in second-rate melodrama"
"One of the many strange things about this utterly grim play is the thought that James Norton will be subjecting himself to the same ordeal, night after night, until the end of the summer. You have to salute his courage."
"Director Ivo van Hove’s version of the bestselling novel by the American writer Hanya Yanagihara purports to be a meditation on suffering. The string quartet playing quietly at the front of the stalls reassures us that we are watching an important work of art. But is that really the case?"
"The performances are accomplished. Norton gives us a soul broken into fragments. The Bridgerton actor Luke Thompson holds our attention as Willem, even if the role — like most of the others — is one-dimensional."
"Strip away the gore and the gossip about Norton’s private parts, and what do you have? A stylishly mounted, second-rate melodrama."
"A little grim, but A Little Life is worth the pain"
"Assuming the frenzied anticipation didn't finish you off, the actual play might."
"Poor Norton is put through the wringer. He loses pints of stage blood through self-harming, is stripped, operated on, run over, and sexually assaulted. Director Ivo Van Hove and writer Koen Tachelet have spared us nothing, and it's bleakly all the better for it."
"I used to think that full stage nudity was always counterproductively distracting, but in this deeply violent setting, it's not gimmicky (or pandering to the Tommy Lee Royce brigade) but absolutely essential. We see every inch of Norton, but it's his pained and drained smile that had the house on its feet as the final, grim scene concludes."
"Jude's pals are also never properly established. Painter JB (a perfectly decent Omari Douglas) does little but moan about his art, and architect Malcolm (Zach Wyatt, with his nicely mournful puppy face) isn't given much text to establish himself. The exception which proves the rule is Luke Thompson, in tremendous form as actor Willem."
"The story is horrible, but there’s no denying the brilliance of James Norton’s performance"
"I really struggled to work out exactly how I felt about ‘A Little Life’, super-director Ivo van Hove’s in-many-ways-brilliant stage adaptation of a novel so bleak it borders on the unethical."
"... James Norton gives a truly titanic performance as New York lawyer Jude, who we follow from childhood to deep middle age"
"But the nudity feels entirely justified. Both of the nude scenes are moments of agonising vulnerability: not a sexy fantasy but the pathetic sight of Jude’s scarred, broken body, exposed like an insect shucked from his shell."
"... this version zeroes in on Jude. That’s sensible, but shifts the tone somewhat. The required cuts mean Omari Douglas’s livewire artist JB is relegated to a memorable minor character. And all we ever really learn about Zach Wyatt’s affable Malcolm is that he’s an architect – his only role in the play is to design a succession of homes for Jude."
"To his credit, Van Hove never makes it feel pulpy or trashily exploitative, more of a meditative treatise on how life is unutterably cruel and shit. But in doing so it becomes a sort of experiment in terror..."
"The acting is brilliant, the direction is great, but much as I admired it as a theatre production, the story is simply an empty vision of despair."
"A naive and psychologically incurious narrative of abuse"
"Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation starring James Norton is cold, surgical and humourless"
"Ivo Van Hove’s epic, bladder-testing, nearly four-hour adaptation takes all the pain in Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel and re-enacts it in graphic detail. Its star James Norton is pretty much constantly drenched in blood, often naked, and always being either psychologically or physically tortured. I could feel the people around me sobbing and covering their eyes and sometimes I did too. But I also felt manipulated by its naive and psychologically incurious narrative of abuse."
"There’s something borderline pornographic to the intensity with which Van Hove’s production both describes and depicts this novel’s events."
"... somehow Norton doesn’t convey Jude’s inner life, or do enough to make you desperately root for him. That’s partly the fault of Van Hove’s cold, surgical, humourless adaptation, but it’s more so the fault of Yanagihara’s book itself."
"There’s a kind of confirmation bias that makes people assume that when they see a very long play or read a very long book, they’re engaging with a great work. In the case of A Little Life, I don’t think they are. If you want to be immersed in other peoples’ pain, go and spend four hours in A&E: it’s cheaper, just as agonising, and you can have a wee whenever you want."
"James Norton gives a towering performance"
"Though relentlessly bleak, this is a superb piece of theatre"
"Yes, it’s almost four hours long and features a relentless diet of sexual violence and graphic self-harm. But international maestro Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s controversial bestseller is a superb piece of theatre with a towering central performance from James Norton."
"It’s a wracking, exposing act of incarnation by Norton to which his occasional nakedness – exploited for prurient purposes in some quarters – adds an extra layer of vulnerability."
"... the staging, first mounted in Amsterdam in 2018, adds a sense of depth and edgy inclusion that the novel lacks. We are onlookers but also complicit, a feeling accentuated by the lengthy, but earned, running time"
"I still can’t decide if A Little Life is a work of great empathy, great voyeurism or some conflation of the two. But it’s been staged here with consummate skill and Norton’s astonishing performance puts him into the top rank."
"James Norton’s a star — but A Little Life is a punishment beating"
"Graphic predatory sex, self-harm and rape, this is a steeplechase of agonies"
"James Norton puts himself through the mangle in the hot-ticket misery-fest A Little Life."
"His unflinching performance shows the commitment of a soldier determined to complete an assault course to prove something to the sergeant-major."
"This production is being hailed as an event, whatever that means, and the prerun hype was inevitably about Norton baring all. There is an irony to that, given the serious point that Yanagihara is trying to make about disguise."
"... the play itself is an unrelenting steeplechase of agonies, a punishment beating in its own right. Some will love it, but I found the depictions of self-harm and rape so overdone as to feel voyeuristic."
"James Norton elevates Ivo van Hove’s knotty adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s bestseller"
"At its best it is transfixing. At its worst it is like a blind date between several episodes of Friends and the Oberammergau passion play."
"The demonstration of how early damage can stamp itself into someone’s DNA – how someone abused as a child is likely to turn on himself, unable to trust, unable to talk – is forcefully dramatised."
"Norton easily carries off the moments a lesser actor would ham up: the whimperings, convulsions of pain, the terror as he is pursued naked by a demonic driver. Yet what makes him truly impressive is the way he lets a strange sweetness glimmer through his difficulties; without that, his interest to his friends would be a mystery, and the production not so much drama as rite."
Savoy Theatre, London