Relationships in the 21st century are slippery entities. We make hundreds of “friends” on Facebook. We fall in love online, only to find we’ve been catfished, and our dream lover is just that – a dream who doesn’t really exist. This smash-hit, Tony-award winning Broadway musical, written by Steven Levenson (Fosse/Verdon) with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), is a sharp, sensitive work about family, mental health, loneliness, growing up and the ubiquitous, two-faced frenemy that is social media.
Teenage angst has of course been a staple of drama for many decades, and in its tender, wry exploration of those familiar feelings of alienation, uncertainty and confusion this show owes something to the teen tribulations we’ve seen on screen in the last 30 years: the 1980s movies of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink), 90s and Noughties TV series like My So-Called Life, Dawson’s Creek and The OC. What Levenson’s book captures so poignantly, though, is the way that the Internet has exacerbated and intensified the adolescent experience. Young people are more hooked-up, yet often more emotionally isolated, than ever before. They make their lives public, and themselves vulnerable. And while the screens we all spend so much of our time staring at can seem like a window on the world, they can also leave us feeling trapped – as one lyric puts it, “tapping on the glass,” experiencing the world at one remove, always feeling distant, disconnected.
That’s the situation for Evan Hansen (Sam Tutty, making an impressive West End debut here), a high-school misfit who suffers from anxiety. Michael Greif’s production finds him with a broken arm in a plaster cast from a recent accident about which he is cagey, and surrounded, in David Korins’ designs and Peter Nigrini’s projections, by ever-scrolling columns of digital babble. In his room, he’s at work on one of the self-affirming letters to himself that his therapist has encouraged him to write. He’s supposed to talk himself into a better frame of mind by composing a message of positivity – but instead, he’s feeling helpless and misunderstood, and longing for Zoe (Lucy Anderson), the girl he has an ardent crush on, to notice him. His single mother, Heidi (Rebecca McKinnis), has tried to buddy him up with Jared (Jack Loxton), the son of family acquaintances, but Jared is reluctant to associate with the nerdy school loser.
Even less accommodating is Connor (Doug Collins), Zoe’s older brother, a brooding, drug-using, angry loner with an emo style Jared snarkily describes as “school-shooter chic.” Connor’s attitude conceals his own turmoil. He scrawls his name across Evan’s cast and, when he stumbles across his letter, is enraged by the reference in it to Zoe, so refuses to return it. When the profoundly unhappy Connor kills himself soon after, the letter is assumed to be his suicide note. Connor’s devastated parents crave the comfort of knowing that their son had a friend – and, not wanting to wound them further, Evan finds himself inventing an entire intimate history with Connor, complete with fabricated memories and an extensive email correspondence, forged and backdated with the help of Jared. A resourceful schoolmate, Alana (Nicole Raquel Dennis), suggests creating an online memorial for Connor. Soon the illusory friendship goes viral – and Evan is suddenly a tragic hero.
Connor and Evan are mirror images of each other, both isolated, hopeless and despairing, and both their mothers wonder, in the anguished "Anybody Have a Map?" how they can help them. That’s just one of numerous other facets of psychological acuity. Connor’s dad Larry (Robert Young) struggles to submit to the agony of his loss, and begins to treat Evan like a surrogate son. Zoe’s grief is mixed with rage – and only through Evan’s fictions does she reconnect with her love for her brother. Meanwhile, the online Connor Project gives rise not only to genuine healing, but to virtue signalling, exploitation and the trolling of Connor’s bereaved family. So wrapped up in his predicament is Evan that he never notices that Alana quietly adores him. And Jared – who through their complicity has become a true confidant to Evan – finds himself sidelined as Evan’s popularity skyrockets and he finally gets his girl.
The show’s tone occasionally teeters on the brink of sentimentality, but it is so shrewd, so adroitly constructed and so culturally on-the-button that it retains its grip. And it’s unstintingly performed by a cast who are both passionately engaged and thoroughly believable. The score is American soft rock, with touches of folk and country, and the singing is light, unaffected and conversational, miles away from showy vibrato and Broadway belt, which lends a freshness and authenticity to the narrative. And Tutty is tremendous as Evan, a tremulous, brittle bundle of agonised self-abnegation who visibly uncurls and expands to fill the darkly glamorous starring role he has inadvertently created for himself. He’s surrounded by terrific support, most notably from Anderson’s conflicted Zoe and from McKinnis as Evan’s mother, taut with strain and worry, terrified of losing him and ablaze with intense, unconditional love. There’s a nightmarish, unstoppable velocity about the way events spiral, the damage that human beings unwittingly do to one another and the complex patterns in which the real and the virtual intersect. In the end, though, the message that the show sends us is that from the worst kind of mess and pain, hope can come. And that’s an affirmation we all need to hear.