Home » London Theatre Reviews » Moby Dick – Wilton’s Music Hall | Review

Moby Dick – Wilton’s Music Hall | Review

This is very much the Moby Dick story on stage, and on reflection, there are no surprises for anyone who has read the 1851 novel. Through contemporary lenses, perhaps the maniacal Ahab (Guy Rhys), who wants to hunt a notorious white sperm whale called – wait for it – Moby Dick – represents anyone who still goes out on a boat to kill whales, and the production is bold enough to portray the whaling practices of the mid-nineteenth century. Let’s just say it’s hardly a pretty sight.

Moby Dick. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Moby Dick. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

If anything, it serves as a reminder of the sort of thing that still happens but used to happen on a much larger scale. The more informational sections of the novel, stating all sorts of facts about whales and their body compositions, are also included, with narrator Ishmael (Mark Arends) assisted by the ensemble bringing on various huge ‘whale’ bones (inverted commas mine – I very much doubt actual whale bones were in use) and other props to demonstrate their sheer enormity.

To begin with, the set looks like a building site, with two sets of scaffolding on stage. But they move about and come together to create Pequod, the whaling ship Ishmael successfully applies to join, despite having no previous maritime experience. Ishmael’s lilting voice is in perfect contrast to Ahab’s more menacing sound, the latter being one of those tunnel-visioned obsessives prepared to pay the ultimate price to get what he wants. I suppose he hasn’t much to lose: Moby Dick has already attacked him (or maybe acted in self-defence) and Captain Ahab has the scars, and a limp, as evidence.

Some actor-musicianship is pitched at the right level, never overpowering any of the dialogue or overemphasising key action scenes. Naturally, the production doesn’t attempt to include everything that’s in the novel on stage, though some of the dialogue justified the two-page ‘whaler’s glossary’ in the show’s programme – there was the odd moment when this lifelong Londoner might as well have been listening to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4. It adds a degree of authenticity to the show and further highlights how being at sea is indeed a very different existence to city living.

Queequeg (Tom Swale) is more knowledgeable and intelligent than he is assumed to be, and such was his intimacy with Ishmael in the first half of the show that a fellow patron remarked that Moby Dick is “basically Brokeback Mountain, but at sea”, a conclusion presumably reached because Queequeg declared them ‘married’ even before they set off on the Pequod. Arends’ Ishmael, meanwhile, is an engaging narrator: you’d want to listen to him, whether you’ve read Moby Dick a hundred times and know what’s coming or have never come across the story in full at all before.

The songs are a mixture of folk tunes, call and response verses and church choruses, not all of which, strictly speaking, did much if anything to drive the story forward. In the end, however, the dangers of men fighting against the natural world are thrillingly and chillingly dramatised in this subtle and inventive retelling of a well-known story.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

October, 1839. The Pequod is due to sail out of Nantucket and her skipper, one Captain Ahab, is in need of a crew. Seeking fortune and adventure, a humble schoolmaster named Ishmael ships aboard, undeterred by the most dangerous of industries – hunting whales. Ishmael joins a company charged with one task: to wreak revenge on the white whale that lost Ahab his leg – the infamous Moby Dick. Ahab’s single-minded pursuit ends up consuming Ishmael, the crew and the Pequod itself.

With theatrical flair and thrilling invention, the spirit of the novel – romantic, ambiguous, and rich with allegory – is gloriously captured by Simple8.  Complete with sea shanties played live on stage, planks of wood, tattered sheets and a battered assortment of musical instruments, the 9-person ensemble will bring this wonderfully vibrant production ingeniously to life.

In a post-pandemic age Moby Dick is more pertinent and vital than ever. The anguish of isolation, the pressure enforced inter-dependency brings, and the fear of unseen dangers swimming beneath the surface are tackled full tilt in this lively production.

Running time: 105 mins, plus interval

Tues 23 April to Sat 11 May 2024
Wilton’s Music Hall


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