Ghost Quartet

Music, lyrics, book and orchestrations by Dave Malloy
Boulevard Theatre

Zubin Varla Credit: Marc Brenner
The Cast of Ghost Quartet Credit: Marc Brenner
Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon Credit: Marc Brenner

London’s latest performance space, the highly adaptable Boulevard Theatre, has the feeling of an intimate nightclub, which is perfect for Dave Malloy’s seductively brilliant Ghost Quartet. Appropriately, showing a true sense of timing, this crossover concept album / performance piece opened the theatre on Halloween.

The piece was conceived by Malloy for the benefit of a trio of friends and, after successful performances across his native United States, the original quartet played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to acclaim.

Following the subsequent Broadway success of the iconoclastic writer-performer’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, still awaiting an outing on the side of the Atlantic, the work enjoys its London première under the directorship of Bill Buckhurst, best known for his site-specific Sweeney Todd, which eventually travelled in the opposite direction.

The theatre is circular, which ideally suits this 90-minute wallow in Grand Guignol tales from a series of sources. These include The 1001 Nights, Edgar Alan Poe and Stephen King, not forgetting the brain of its innovative creator, a man as adept at musical composition as poetic storytelling.

The stage is littered with dozens of musical instruments, together with a series of emblematic props, each of which makes a pertinent appearance at the appropriate moment, thanks to the vision of designer Simon Kenny and the sterling efforts of his lighting colleague Emma Chapman.

The instruments are played by four talented performers, each of whom also acts and sings. Zubin Varla takes the lead from the piano and keyboards, while Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon primarily play percussion but also switch to string instruments as necessary. That leaves Niccolò Curradi, the cellist with a deep voice.

They worked together perfectly and the only issue at the performance under review was a slight imbalance between the instruments and the singers, which made some of the lyrics difficult to pick up.

The tales, presented track by track as a four-sided concept album, constantly overlap and interleave to the extent that viewers may sometimes lose the plot, although this hardly matters as they will always have a general feeling for the doom that awaits almost every one of the main characters.

The attractions of Bill Buckhurst’s production are numerous. First, the music is an absolute delight, always haunting and sometimes catchy, culminating in the addictive “The Wind and the Rain”.

There is also a great deal of dark humour for example in “Any Kind of Dead Person”. The storytelling proves to be intoxicating, as one tries to unpick the tales and understand the relationships, which range across time and space.

Even for those that hate audience participation, an element undoubtedly intensifies involvement. In any event, the opportunity to contribute by playing a strange percussion instrument might well prove tempting to most, while the evening’s closure is absolutely magical, although it would be unfair to reveal the details.

Suffice to say that this gloriously offbeat production will delight every member of the audience, bring the house down and guarantee a standing ovation at the end of each performance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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