I first came upon Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet in 2016 at Edinburgh Fringe, and I’ve been talking about it pretty much ever since. When it finally made its way to Soho’s Boulevard Theatre earlier this year, I immediately and gleefully bought a ticket, but the day before I was due to go, I was called away on a family birthday emergency and had to miss the show.
But have no fear! Because not only am I now able to see it as many times as I damn well please, but I can do it sat on my sofa in my jim-jams whilst eating porridge for dinner. And what a wonderful thing it turns out that is. Let me tell you, this will be a real revelation for theatregoers the world over because, whilst the home-theatre experience certainly lacks the singular focus insisted upon in a darkened auditorium, this way you can do in your pyjamas! And personally I’m quite happy to work on my self-discipline and attention span in exchange for being able to do all my favourite things in jogging bottoms and a hoodie. (Expect similar sermons on the joy of pyjama theatre at the start of all my reviews for the foreseeable future.)
So, to the show. Imagine a musical theatre soundtrack performed live, but rather than simply ending up with the original show in all its high production glory, we have four musicians in-the-round, each surrounded by multiple instruments, a few bottles of whiskey and nothing else. And it turns out, that’s all you need to tell a good musical yarn.
We follow sisters Rose (Brittain Ashford) and Pearl (Gelsey Bell) through various lifetimes and incarnations—mother, daughter, stranger, friend—as they work their way through a sibling spat over a boy. Rose seeks revenge when she comes to believe that her lover, the astronomer (Dave Malloy), is really in love with her sister. In exchange for a collection of very weird stuff, a bear (Brent Arnold) agrees to maul Pearl to death. But first Rose must find all that the bear has asked for: one pot of honey, one piece of stardust, one secret baptism and a photo of a ghost.
If that sounds completely confusing, don’t worry, it will impede your enjoyment not a drop. I was confused when I saw it in 2016, and I’m confused today, but I’m still going to recommend it to all my friends, and I’ll probably watch it again in a couple of days.
Reminiscent of Regina Spektor-style story-telling, Molloy has a lot of fun with a plethora of genres—gypsy, klezmer, jazz, bluegrass, gospel and even a little electronica—and the compositions fearlessly call upon a chaos of instruments and bold, often dissonant harmonies, resulting in ninety minutes of surprising, gutsy hits. “Star Child” is such a beautiful belter and with lines like “I will become the next big thing, I will light myself on fire” I’m surprised it’s not a regular feature on the musical theatre audition circuit. I’ll be shower-singing the jazzy jig “Any kind of dead person” for days and, in these strange times, I’m sure many of us will be nodding knowingly along with “Four Friends” (“Oh Evan Williams... when the end times fall and the zombies call, I’ll be drinking you out of a shoe.”)
Performances are as bold as the script. Ashford and Bell carry the show, with entirely different but pleasingly complimentary vocals, multi-instrumental capabilities and wonderfully expressive faces (there’s not much moving around or ‘acting’, so that last one is extra important). It’s not a perfect performance, but that’s part of the charm, feeling more like a very accomplished jam session than an over-rehearsed show. Best of all, of course, is that all four seem to be having a whale of a time. There's a lovely moment between Bell and Arnold in which Bell takes a moment to compliment Arnold on his lovely cello-playing, "Thanks", he replies humbly, "I practice a lot."
This is very much both a compositional and a theatrical endeavour, and in both categories, the result is inimitable. I have never seen a performance like it, though I have no doubt we’ll be seeing plenty more of this calibre from Molloy. It seems impossible that someone capable of creating such a commotion of ideas doesn’t have a whole lot more waiting to be unleashed.
Reviewer: Miriam Sallon