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DIVA: Live From Hell! at the Turbine Theatre

It’s always exciting to go to a premiere of a show. So I was really happy to be invited to go to the European premiere of Nora Brigid Monahan and Alexander Sage Oyen’s musical Diva: Live From Hell.

Diva! Live from Hell - Luke Bayer. Photo by Harry Elletson.
Diva! Live from Hell – Luke Bayer. Photo by Harry Elletson.

Welcome to the ‘Seventh Circle of Hell’. It’s not quite as Dante Alighieri describes it. In fact, it’s less “the Hell of the Violent and Bestial” and more a rather nice cabaret bar with little tables, a thrust stage, and a small band (MD Debbie Clarke with Jonnie Grant on drums and Ben Uden on guitar) on the side. The lights dim and Desmond Channing (Luke Bayer) takes to the stage. This it transpires is his own personal hell. Constantly on stage telling and re-telling his story of how he ended up where he is for today and for all eternity. The story is a sad tale of a mighty fall from height. Desmond was president of his high school theatre group and about to have the lead in the fall musical, where he would play against his high school sweetheart. Desmond’s life couldn’t be any better until Evan Harris transfers in from a theatrical school in New York. Whilst Desmond initially takes to the new, super cool lad, things go sour quickly and as Desmond’s emotions rise, his inner diva explodes with devastating results.

Where to start with Diva: Live From Hell? I honestly don’t know. There was so much to enjoy in this 75-minute show, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. OK, let’s start with the book. Nora Brigid Monahan’s basic story is excellent. Desmond is an interesting character who could easily have strayed into pure stereotypical caricature. In many ways, Desmond reminded me of a combination of Kurt and Rachel from Glee, but without anything holding them back. There is frankly little about Desmond to like for the majority of the show. They are snarky, bitchy, self-centred with a capital S and C and generally unlikeable in every way, right up until they go home and interact with their grandmother (voiced by one of three West-End legends, Janie Dee, Claire Moore, or Harrier Thorpe) when suddenly Desmond is a sweet boy once more.

So, we have a good story, the next thing are the songs and Alexander Sage Oyen has put a number of excellent songs into the story. In the best traditions of quality musicals, the songs add to the personalities of the characters and move the narrative along in fine style. Stand-out songs for me included ‘His Best Friend,’ ‘Rock Bottom’ and the wonderful ‘Diva.’

Let’s turn to Luke Bayer. What a performance. Not only playing Desmond but all of the other characters. Not only playing all the characters but singing as them – even duetting with himself – Luke’s performance is simply amazing. His vocals are great, he looks great and knows how to work an audience so that no matter how awful Desmond becomes, he is still someone you want to watch. Luke has a fantastic presence and a wonderful ability to take a bitchy put-down and elevate it to something really special. With quite a dark story Luke, under director Joe McNeice keeps everything light and frothy and, let’s be honest, musical theatre(ish) right up until the final horrific scenes which had me literally sitting on the edge of my seat making sure I didn’t miss anything. Ultimately Desmond is not a nice character and what he does is abysmal, even by Diva standards, but by the end, I had a certain sympathy for him. After all, I was able to leave the seventh circle, while he has to perform there for eternity.

Diva: Live From Hell really took me by surprise. Whatever I thought I was going to see, my expectations were blown away. The show is full of references and tropes that are familiar to lovers of musical theatre but at the same time it doesn’t alienate those who are dipping their toe into the art form. The show is fabulous, and the actor truly stupendous, and if anyone is listening, a cast album should be produced instanta. And while Desmond is performing forever, Diva: Live From Hell is on a limited run at the Turbine Theatre and if you have to, I recommend you sell your soul to the devil to get a ticket.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

The show, set in hell’s “Seventh Circle” cabaret club, is loosely based on the classic motion picture ‘All About Eve’, and follows high-school student Desmond Channing as he recounts the twisted events that led him to the underworld.

Produced by Alistair Lindsay for the Unusual Theatre Company, DIVA: Live From Hell! features direction and design by Joe McNeice, musical direction by Debbi Clarke, and choreography by Anna Hale. Sarah Barron (Production Assistant), Meghan Bartual-Smyth (Company Stage Manager), Jonnie Grant (Drums), Ben Uden (Bass & Guitar), Richard Carter (Production Sound), and Joe Peal (Assistant Lighting Designer) complete the team.

DIVA: Live From Hell
17th August – 3rd September 2022
Turbine Theatre

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