As someone who’s been going to the theatre for almost fifty years and has been reviewing for the past decade or so, it takes a lot for this old theatre cynic to be swept away and astounded by a musical but that’s what happened to me last night watching Ghost Quartet at London’s newest theatre the Boulevard in Soho. The last time it happened to me was a few years ago when I saw the amazing production of Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie Shop in Tooting. The creatives behind that gem were producer Rachel Edwards and director Bill Buckhurst, the team behind Ghost Quartet so they must have some magical recipe for making ground-breaking, astounding theatre.
Before I start my review, a word or two about the Boulevard Theatre. It’s a brand-new build on the site of Paul Raymond’s original theatre also called the Boulevard which was just a few steps away in Walker’s Court from the famous (or should that be infamous) Raymond’s Revue Bar. To carry on the family heritage, the founder and Chair of the new theatre is Fawn James, Raymond’s granddaughter.
She and her team must be congratulated on building the most flexible, modern theatre in London where shows can be performed in the round (as in this production) and at the touch of a button, be re-configured to fit a particular show. Not only can the stage revolve but the stalls and the balcony can rotate 270 degrees to conform to whatever is needed – this is state of the state of art – the future of theatre is now. And probably the most important element for the audience are the specially designed, very comfortable seats that come with plenty of leg room – other new theatres take note!
As for Ghost Quartet it’s hard to know where to begin. The four actor/musicians arrive on the stage and address the audience directly before announcing that the first song is side 1, track 1 “I Don’t Know” as Dave Malloy who wrote the piece originally conceived it as a rock concept double-album (you’ve got to be of a certain age to remember those) and it went from there. Actually, there’s very little to no rock music in the piece – on the whole it defies categorisation veering from wonderful sweeping melodies to atonal soundscapes played on a variety of instruments.
As for the storyline, well there really isn’t one – or maybe there are many. The piece is told in a non-linear way with a number of interwoven fables that start, then disappear into the ether before magically appearing later on in the piece. There are references and allusions to Edgar Allen Poe, mythology, the Brothers Grimm, Tales of the Arabian Nights and even The Twilight Zone! This is a piece of theatre where concentration is paramount – drift off and you’ll miss a tiny connection on side four of the “album” to a line on side one. It’ll evade you like mercury on a mahogany table and you might struggle to get it back again.
Ghost Quartet with all those influences, is on the whole a dark, gothic piece with references to death, ghosts and star children – there’s even a song that asks, “What Kind Of Dead Guy Would You Be?” – light and fluffy this isn’t!
To say designer Simon Kerry’s design was quirky and off-beat would be an understatement. The stage is littered not only with the instruments the cast will play but suitcases, antiques, pieces of furniture, brick-a-back and a mysterious telescope that will play a part in the narrative (what there is of it). There’s also a camera hanging from the rafters that disappears from view with the deftness of a close-up magician whilst your attention is drawn to what the performers are doing on stage. The piece has another-world, dream-like, slightly tipsy quality and that’s not because some members of the audience were given a glass of whisky by the cast – the drink plays no small part in the piece.
There are other times when the audience are asked to get involved with percussion instruments and the musical ends with a coup de théâtre that’s quite mesmerising and ensures you leave the auditorium with a big smile on your face.
As for the performers, the four, Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla are just superb. The two women who both get wonderful solos, sing like a dream, ably backed up by the two men – their four-part harmonies are just sublime. Varla who’s a wonderful pianist acts as a kind of MC addressing the audience and telling us where we are within the album. Curradi plays a mournful cello which adds to the melancholy of some of the songs. Bawden plays autoharp and percussion and Memon plays every instrument she can find on stage (and that’s quite a few).
The musical form was changed radically by Rogers and Hammerstein when they wrote the revolutionary “Oklahoma”. That baton was passed to Stephen Sondheim who transformed the art-form with musicals about cannibalism, the opening up of Japan and a musical about commitment that had no plot. Having seen Ghost Quartet, it could be that Dave Malloy is next in-line to take on that illustrious mantle – only time and his next few works will tell.
In the meantime, get down to the superb Boulevard Theatre and see this mystical, magical, marvellous work of art and judge for yourself.
Review by Alan Fitter
Ghost Quartet, is written by the Tony Award-nominated writer of Broadway smash-hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 Dave Malloy. Bill Buckhurst directs and reunites the creative team behind his sell-out production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which transferred from a pie shop in Tooting, to the West End, and eventually to a sell-out New York run, with musical direction and supervision by Benjamin Cox, design by Simon Kenny, movement direction by Georgina Lamb, lighting by Emma Chapman, sound design by David Gregory and casting by Will Burton CDG.
Ghost Quartet is an intoxicating musical of love, loss and spirits – of both the spectral and alcoholic kind. Wildly inventive, Malloy’s piece draws inspiration from a rich tapestry of work from Arabian Nights and Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King, Grimms’ fairy-tales, Stephen Sondheim and Frozen, woven together by jazz, gospel, honky-tonk, folk ballads, electro-pop and jazz. This haunting song cycle is a story about stories themselves; how we tell them, how we hear them, and how they evolve, intertwine and draw us in.
The cast includes Carly Bawden (Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), Niccolò Curradi (Hotel for Criminals, New Wimbledon Studio), Maimuna Memon (Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) and Zubin Varla (Fun Home, Young Vic).
Music, Lyrics and Text by Dave Malloy
Directed by Bill Buckhurst
6 Walker’s Court
Soho, W1F 0BT
First Performance: 24 October 2019
Final Performance: 4 January 2020
Opening Night: 31 October 2019