One of the most successful manga series (Japanese comic books), then anime shows (Japanese animation) of all time, Death Note has jumped from medium to medium, chasing that sweet nerd dollar. This includes a lacklustre live action movie, various spin-off animations and a well received musical, the latter of which arrived in London this week (it sold out the Palladium in a few hours and transfers for a limited run at The Lyric next month).
You can tell this isn’t your regular theatre audience when the queue for the merch stall is several times longer than the queue for the bar. Made up mostly of 20-somethings with a smattering of parents dragged along for the ride, they look a bit like the cast of Rocky Horror Picture Show were they to attend a My Chemical Romance gig, with more emo haircuts that you can count and plenty of people in full goth-lolita cosplay.
Rapturous applause before the show had even begun suggests Death Note is preaching to the choir but this show never feels like a cynical cash-in, with a solid – if extremely strange – musical emerging through the veil of hype.
It begins with a conversation between two shinigami – monstrous Japanese spirits who coax humans towards death – complaining about how bored they are. “All we do all day is play with bones, gamble and kill humans,” laments Ryuk, a tall, spidery figure with a shock of black hair and the most impressive costume I’ve seen on a London stage this year.
To combat the boredom he drops his “death note” into the human world, just for shits and giggles. Inside are instructions on its use: write someone’s name in the book and they will die within 40 seconds. If no cause of death is written, they will die of a heart attack. Simple.
The book is discovered by Light, a smart but reactionary schoolboy, who immediately sets about killing dozens of criminals, quickly developing a taste for vigilante justice.
Bewildered police bring in an equally amoral child detective to help solve the case, the brilliant L, who is also happy to throw the odd criminal under the bus in his attempts to catch Light.
The song and dance numbers vary from traditional musical theatre fare to rocky numbers, John Carpenter-esque synth tunes, and even some unusual choral pieces.
The cast is excellent, led by powerhouse performances by Joaquin Pedro Valdes as Light and Dean John Wilson as his nemesis. John Wilson also adds some wonderful physical acting into the mix, his L full of fidgety energy and a charming menace.
Francis Mayli McCann plays influencer-cum-love interest Misa, and while she’s given the more traditional songs, she belts them out beautifully.
Adam Pascal, however, comes close to stealing the show as Ryuk, hamming up his limited number of songs with a wonderful, gravelly baritone.
An impressive set made up of higgledy-piggledy brickwork spires introduces some verticality, allowing the 20-strong cast to inhabit the stage at the same time for the big numbers.
The plot of Death Note is difficult enough to follow over 12 volumes of manga or 37 episodes of TV, so condensing it into two hours and change was always going to be a challenge, especially when most of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken; were I not already au fait with the material I’m sure I’d have followed it in only the broadest of strokes.
It’s worth noting that the Palladium shows were fraught with technical issues, with the sound breaking up at higher volumes and microphones frequently failing to fade in on time, resulting in missed lines of dialogue.
These problems would have been enough to sink a lesser show but Death Note ends with a sense of triumph. It’s a bizarre production, a mad confluence of styles and influences that shouldn’t work together but somehow coagulate into something quite brilliant.