Traverse Theatre, London – until 9 March 2019
Guest Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
In The Dark Carnival Vanishing Point and The Citizens (in association with Dundee Rep Ensemble) have crafted a strangely fascinating but oddly frustrating entertainment – theatre-cum-gig-cum-cabaret that impresses in fits and starts.
Set in a six-feet-underworld where selected members of the deceased can view the still-living accompanied by the music of A New International, the show contains a great deal that is striking and much that is intriguing.
Visually, the production is beyond reproach. Kenneth MacLeod’s marvellous multi-level set is serviced brilliantly by Simon Wilkinson’s lighting – frames of light, slabs of darkness, all filigree and shadow.
Many of the performances are also excellent – Elicia Daly’s narrator welcoming newcomers to the ranks of the undead, Ann Louise Ross’s forbidding, whisky-swilling matriarch, Malcolm Cumming’s victim of institutionalised bigotry.
Then there is Olivia Barrowclough’s beautifully judged young girl, Peter Kelly’s grieving older man, Natali McCleary’s mysterious angel, Laurie Scott’s ghost hunter, Harry Ward’s ex-army officer and would -be ghost, and Ramesh Meyyappan’s gravedigger – each adding to the complexity and wonderfully structured visuals, not least in a genuinely breathtaking silhouette sequence.
Nevertheless, there is something holding the production back. There are definite problems with Matthew Lenton’s script, which does not approach the quality of his direction on this occasion.
It is written in rather baggy rhyme – the characters apologise for it more than once, and even describe it as ‘doggerel’, but this is no excuse. Putting in snatches of Wilde and (somewhat mangled) Shelley only reinforces that the verbal poetry on display is well below the standard of the visual poetry.
The narrative has no drive, with some ill-fitting political parallels that seem to meander to a close. The explanation of what happens to the residents of the underworld is not a new one; it was also taken up by a recent Disney-Pixar animation (where it was done much more elegantly).
The music, moreover, is something of a mixed bag. A New International (a woozy cabaret band, resembling a more puppyish Band of Holy Joy) work very well at first, but there are too many songs, putting more brakes on a narrative that could really does not need them.
There is also something overly polite about some of Biff Smith’s lyrics and the band’s music – maybe it is the comparative lack of volume, but they are not quite as pale-and-interesting as they want to be.
This ever-so-slightly mealy-mouthed feeling is carried over throughout, from the title’s allusion to the desire some years ago to make ‘dark’ versions of everything, through the script, which has surprisingly little grit. For a production dealing with grief, loss and mourning, there is surprisingly little emotional pull.
This is one of these productions where a star rating is a blunt instrument – three stars disguises that there is some of this that is ho-hum, but also some that is spectacular. And if Vanishing Point’s reach has exceeded their grasp, that is no bad thing.
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 6– Saturday 9 March 2019
Evenings: 7.30 pm; Matinees Fri 22 Feb, Sat 2 Mar 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.
Vanishing Point website: www.vanishing-point.org
Old Peter played by Peter Kelly, knocks on heaven’s door. Pic Mihaela Bodlovic.