The Other Palace, London – until 27 May 2017
“When all the world’s at war, it’s better to be dead”.
Pallid pessimistic ghosts roam around a lonely Maine lighthouse in WW2, with heaving sepia seas behind (Mark Holthusen’s projections are ace, atmospheric, and so is Andrew W Riley’s circular pit of a set). The two disaffected phantoms roam around singing, between the two halves of the band, and serve as narrators, when not looming over the other dramatis personae like singing Dementors, or luring the young hero Christopher onto the causeway to drown.
He is a doughty child (a fine debut on press night for Stanley Jarvis, sharing the role with Fisher Costello-Rose) . He has lost his airman father, his Mum is in an asylum after trying to drown herself, so he is sent to live in the lighthouse with his curmudgeonly club-footed Aunt Lily who “isn’t used to children ” . She has a dark sad secret sin in her past which the ghosts understand daily resent, and puts cod liver oil in the boy’s porridge. The ghosts have it in for him too, and howl in his little ears in his bed as the seagulls shriek and the waves roar, Gothically moaning in mid-market rock “If this doesn’t terrify you, it should”.
So here’s a rock-opera cross between Turn of The Screw and Silas Marner, with – as it turns out – a dash of The Go-Between. For little Christopher is a patriot, determined to do his duty and tell inconvenient truths to the simple hearted sheriff . Which is awkward, since Lily”s longtime assistant and friend is a tall, kindly Mr Yasuhiro, who before long she is ordered to give up as a potential spy an enemy alien. The friendship between the pair – gentle giant Nicholas Goh beautifully restrained, and Dianne Pilkington, gruff and enduring – is the psychologically solid anchor of the story, though needs more work in the script.
The plot thickens, quite satisfyingly, before a dramatic U- boat bombing, fight, ghost-drowning in smoke, and a resolution happy enough to make is safe enough to bring any child old enough to see Goodnight Mr Tom. Actually, for an early taste of rock musicals, it’d be ideal. Tickets go down to £ 15.
That it is here at all is encouraging. Andrew Lloyd Webber, well on a roll after the smashing School Of Rock – which he opens in workshop form – has taken over the former St James as a crucible for experimenting with new musicals, pocket shows which might grow, and unreviewed experiments. This one is more finished, and up for review, though interestingly its advertised 2 hrs 10 came in at under two hours: one suspects late cuts in Adam Lenson’s production. That makes for a briskly enjoyable evening, though the music is not particularly memorable, and themes recur in both tune and lyrics more than often enough. The composer is Duncan Sheik, who hit awards with Sspring Awakening, the book and other lyrics by Kyle Jarrow , inspired by true wartime events and sharpened by Trumpian 21c xenophobia. There’s a ghoststory-within-a-ghoststory too, because our moaning phantoms were drowned in a yacht cursed by its owner “Solomon Snell, Ring the Bell, Too much trust is the road to Hell”. He got buried alive. Eeek.
Actually, It’s not a bad yarn, and top marks for not being a movie-echo. Needs more varied numbers, though, to develop the characters of Lily, Yasuhiro and the sheriff. Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are fabulous as the ghosts though, every bit as petulant, resentful, threatening and glamorous as one could ask.