Dave Malloy is probably best known for his recent Broadway hit, Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, an entirely sung through musical based on seventy pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That should give you some sense of what to expect with his earlier work Ghost Quartet, which despite having played across America and even at Edinburgh Fringe, is now just making its London Premiere at the newly opened Boulevard Theatre, directed by Bill Buckhurst.
London’s latest theatre is the ideal venue for Ghost Quartet; presented in the round and with only a couple of rows, it feels like a very intimate performance, almost as if we were all sat round a campfire being regaled with stories of bears, stardust and whisky. The production is described as a song cycle, and the themes of life and death feature heavily, the story isn’t particularly easy to follow but it wasn’t written to be. Instead, it is the music that takes centre stage, with Malloy describing it as a rock concept album where emotions should take over.
It certainly succeeds in that sense, as intimate as the theatre is, the audience are drawn ever closer to the action through a series of clever little touches which make the whole thing feel like this wonderful shared experience. The plot, should you try to follow it, involves four non-linear, but interwoven stories which pitches science against the mystical, and the past against the present.
The four very talented actor musicians; Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla, take on a variety of roles throughout the telling of these tales, but we are rarely given much of a clue as to who is who, the fun comes in finding that out for ourselves. Eventually we become familiar with the likes of Rose Red, Roxie and The Astronomer, and it’s as if we’ve known them forever, like fairytale characters we might have forgotten as we grew up.
The music is a heady mix of gospel, folk, jazz, and just about everything in between. Twenty three songs in total make up the cycle, and they are split into four sides – the cast helpfully tell us before each song which number we are on, picking up on that album theme again. Everything is played live by the cast, on all manner of instruments which are hidden amongst the old trunks and storm lamps that clutter the stage.
Musical Director, Benjamin Cox has weaved some kind of magic in this production because it sounds absolutely divine, even the tracks that may not be a of a genre of your usual choosing will take you by surprise. Emma Chapman’s lighting design takes over the whole theatre, often at its best in its simplest moments, but astounding in its most complex.
Some lines are delivered with off the cuff levity, while others land with such gravitas they take the air out of your lungs for just a second, Ghost Quartet is as incredibly moving as it wonderfully joyous. In truth, it is unlike anything you will have seen before, part theatre, part mystical music gig, it all comes together to create a sense of wonderment that is palpable throughout the audience.