When I was in primary school, there was a tendency on certain teachers to do a countdown, with the proviso that the classroom had to be tidied up and all equipment, chairs and furniture put back in their (apparent) rightful places by the time the countdown reached zero. If everything wasn’t cleared up to the satisfaction of the teacher, the entire class would be kept in detention. I suspect it wouldn’t be permissible to do that sort of thing these days, if anything because all the rushing around the gullible members of the class insisted on doing – no matter how many times the rest of us told them it was a ruse to get us to tidy up quickly – would pose too much of a health and safety risk. Someone did trip over and hurt themselves once and came back the next day with crutches and one of their legs in a cast.
Teachers would rarely if ever, hit zero without everything being back in order, because a favoured tactic was to stop counting down in integers and start using fractions or decimals: “Four and a half!” Such a warped concept of time comes into play in Midnight when, for reasons explained in the narrative (and not altogether convincingly), watches and clocks in the house in which the play is set all stop ticking. When I opened the programme, after a nice introduction to the production company on the inside page, is a one-page note headed ‘Stalin’s Great Terror’ – and I got a feeling that this wasn’t exactly going to be a jaunty ride.
I shouldn’t judge a musical by its programme. But if the Visitor (Leon Scott) and at least a few of the musical numbers are a pastiche of a world rather different to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a time when the NKVD, the USSR’s interior ministry, was engaged in the Great Purge. This campaign involved Soviet officials taking large numbers of people by force who were considered, sometimes on very flimsy evidence, to be, to use the phrase used in the musical, ‘enemies of the people’ – whatever that meant. Such was the severity of the purge that even Nikolai Yezhov (1895-1940), head of the NKVD from 1936 to 1938, was arrested, tried and executed.
No wonder, then, that both Man (Colin Burnicle) and his husband, the equally unimaginatively titled Woman (Norma Butikofer) are fearful. Or are they? They are at least wrestling with their thoughts and emotions in what becomes a psychological thriller of sorts. Some good actor-musicianship is to be enjoyed, courtesy of pianist and musical director Harry Haden-Brown, and actors simply named as Player 1, 2, 3 and 4 (Melania Maggiore, Tilly-Mae Millbrook, Ashley Daniels and Luke Thornton).
Both instruments and voices are unamplified, and in the studio space of the Union Theatre, the sound was far more balanced some other musicals I’ve seen there over the years. Even so, some voices could be heard more strongly than others, though I think it a little too unkind to call out those I struggled to hear on occasion, and in any event, in a show partly about secrets, I feel almost obliged to retain one or two myself. But I do want to highlight Scott’s excellent baritone singing voice, which when combined with some compelling acting provides the production with a tour de force performance.
The naturalistic set and costumes, however, mixed with the other-worldliness of the music and dialogue, make the production more jarring than it needed to be. The music, overall, is a joy to listen to, and the musical numbers drive the story forward. The musical numbers are, on the other hand, quite forgettable, and the ending rather predictable. Some further tweaking is needed before another production of this play happens.
Review by Chris Omaweng
New Year’s Eve, 1937. Welcome to Baku, Azerbaijan, part of the Communist state of the Soviet Union. As the clock ticks towards midnight, a couple (Colin Burnicle – Elf the Musical, Theatre Royal Plymouth & The Lowry, and Norma Butikofer – Retreat, Little Pieces of Gold, Southwark Playhouse) nervously raise their glasses to an uncertain future. The past 12 months have been the darkest of the Great Terror years, when the paranoid dictator Joseph Stalin unleashed wave upon wave of arrests and executions of ordinary citizens.
And then comes the dreaded knock on the door as a chilling visitor (Leon Scott – Treasure Island, New Vic Theatre; Romeo & Juliet and Othello, Shakespeare’s Globe) invites himself in. Is he from the ruthless secret police? Or is he something a more mysterious and terrifying? Old secrets emerge, time is suspended and the couple are tested to breaking point – and beyond.
Joining Colin, Norma and Leon on stage will be an ensemble of actor-musicians Ashley Daniels, Melania Maggiore, Tilly-Mae Millbrook and Luke Thornton.
Debunk Theatre presents
MIDNIGHT – A New Musical
Book and Lyrics by Timothy Knapman
Music and Lyrics by Laurence Mark Wythe
Based on the play Citizens Of Hell by Elchin
Directed by Kate Golledge
Musical Director Harry Haden-Brown
Choreography Chris Cuming
Designer Elliott Squire
Lighting Design Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson
Age guidance: 14+
Press Night: Tuesday 11 September
Dates: Wednesday 5 September – Saturday 29 September 2018