The Other Palace, London – until 1 April 2017
The arrival of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party in London marks a number of premiere moments. It is: the first production of the show this side of the Atlantic; it is also the debut production staged in the newly re-branded The Other Palace (formerly known as the St James Theatre); and even more importantly the production marks choreographer Drew McOnie’s elevation to director, alongside his recognised craft of choreography.
Drawn from Joseph Moncure March‘s 1928 poem of the same name the show is an unrelenting tale of bastardry in 1920s New York. Frances Ruffelle‘s Queenie and her husband Burrs are a pair of fading Vaudeville artistes. But Queenie loves to party, wildly and the musical evolves into a blurred flurry of decadent debauchery that is ultimately to end in rape and murder. The details of the plot are barely significant – think of The Great Gatsby without the glamour, or perhaps a glimpse into what Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel may have been like in its once wonderful pomp.
John Owen-Jones is the terrifyingly brilliant Burrs – at times grotesquely sporting a clown’s white slap and red lips. To Gavin Mallett’s muted trumpet early on in the show his compelling voice and presence defines misogyny – his white-gloved jazz hands as capable of beating up a woman as whipping up an audience. Owen-Jones is never less than compelling, think Archie Rice with a hint of Amos Hart and you start to get close to his monstrous creation. (There’s a doomed mania to the partnership of Owen-Jones and Ruffelle that makes one long for a one-day future pairing as Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett.)
It’s hard to track the flow of guests – there are so many cameo turns, for the most part performed flawlessly, that the plot’s details dissolve into a carefully choreographed cocktail of humanity. These are partying gadflies desperately clinging to a life of social semblance, yet all, for the most part, little more than vapid, vacuous vamps. And throughout there’s a pulse of jealousy fuelled by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Kate and her insouciant lover Black played by Simon Thomas.
LaChiusa has structured his work so that all the ensemble get their moment(s) in the spotlight and to be fair, with only a couple of exceptions, they all give of their entirety to make this punishing show deliver its punch. Memorable amongst the cast are Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo’s androgynous twins, Tiffany Graves intriguing Madeleine, Steven Serlin’s violated Goldberg and Dex Lee’s serpentine Jackie.
As with any McOnie production, the movement comes first – and The Wild Party is a virtually constant flow of lithe fluidity as the cast writhe through their roles. Where perhaps the flaws in McOnie’s directing skills peek through, is in the occasional moments where the acting sometimes fades away. Seasoned troupers like Owen-Jones and Ruffelle can act their hearts out blindfolded – but elsewhere McOnie needs to have taken some of the cast deeper into their roles.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is a multi layered confection that’s a treat to look at, save for Richard Howell’s lighting which a tad too often blinds the audience with its stadium-powered wash. Up above the stage, Theo Jamieson’s eight piece band are nothing short of remarkable as they deliver LaChiusa’s score, a composition as relentlessly brilliant as the narrative.
Whilst the music and movement are stunning, The Wild Party’s not easy on both eyes and ears and is probably best enjoyed by genre aficionados. A couple of pre-show gins or juleps are recommended too.