❉ The immersive world of David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s ‘Lazarus’ comes to London – and it’s thrilling, writes Martin Ruddock.
The jukebox musical has a curious place in pop culture. It’s usually designed to be a feelgood couple of hours, a Disneyfied version of a pop career with added jazz hands. The current authorised Motown story allows Berry Gordy to look more sympathetic, rather than the ruthless ringmaster that was screwing Diana Ross and didn’t want ‘What’s Goin’ On’ to come out. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ allows Ray Davies to keep rewriting the Kinks story in his own image, and continue to annoy his brother Dave. Perhaps the most honest is ‘Jersey Boys’, which is just as unashamedly showbiz as the real Four Seasons. And then, there’s ‘Lazarus’.
“Ain’t that just like me?” sings Michael C. Hall, a few minutes into ‘Lazarus’, as he essays a dramatic rendition of the title track. And isn’t it just like David Bowie to take the jukebox musical and twist it into something non-linear, oblique, and challenging? ‘Lazarus’ is a continuation of the story of his favourite alien, Thomas Jerome Newton. Bowie famously shared a body with Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. It’s basically the story of a homesick alien going mad in his apartment. And it’s thrilling.
Staged by Director Ivo Van Hove on a single set, ‘Lazarus’ revolves around Newton’s New York apartment, where he shambles about, watching TV on a huge screen, subsisting on gin and twinkies – alive, but unable to die. Bowie’s music (performed by the cast and a tight pit band) drives and adds to the narrative, even if it’s simply there to illustrate Newton’s hallucinations, like the surreal It’s No Game sequence.
Hall inhabits Newton completely, and never breaks character for a second. He’s lying, prone on the floor as the audience files in, and he’s onstage for every minute of the show. He’s very physical, throwing himself around the set in a cartilage-punishing tour de force. Hall’s Newton is more mournful than Bowie’s, and very funny when it comes to it, but the lines drawn between them are obvious to see. Hall’s reverent to Bowie, but doesn’t ape him, singing in a powerful baritone that’s got a dash of the Dame, but is his own.
Three characters enter Newton’s life, in what could be seen as a twisted version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. One of them represents the past, one definitely represents death, and one is arguably an actual ghost.
One of the running threads of ‘Lazarus’ is Newton’s pining for old flame Mary Lou, from the original story. She only ever appears on screen as a ghostly figure in his reveries. She’s cast here as a blue-haired manic pixie dream girl, looking uncannily like Ramona Flowers from ‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’.
Mary Lou’s emblematic presence leads to a haunting of sorts, as Newton’s ‘assistant’ Ellie (Amy Lennox), escaping a failing marriage, sheds her dowdy get-up and begins to dress as Mary Lou, replete with blue wig, in an attempt to seduce the tortured Newton. Lennox’s performance is raw and gutsy, singing Changes first as a chintzy shuffle, then as a domestic meltdown. She spends much of her time in a state of part-undress, as she climbs in and out of outfits with a raw, gawky physicality that cleverly shows Ellie’s torment. It’s a shame that she disappears from the action as quickly as she arrives.
Then there’s the unnamed Girl, a lost, waifish teenager, only visible to Newton, played by Sophia Ann Caruso, who’s superb. Her performance of No Plan is very Broadway, but really works. Her character becomes a muse for Newton, giving him hope to build a new spacecraft and finally return home. On the flipside, she’s also the focus of Lazarus’s most upsetting sequence.
And then there’s Valentine, the serial killer from Valentine’s Day made flesh. Michael Esper gives him a baleful, lurking presence, charismatic, but vulnerable. He’s a man with fuzzy motivations, present perhaps more because of Bowie’s interest in noir-ish serial killers than anything else. Valentine’s out to “Kill Love”, and although Espers gives a great performance Valentine remains tangential to the story until near the end, when he finally ‘gets’ to Newton. Having made a huge splash, he then abruptly disappears too.
There’s also three dissolute, unnamed teenage girls that drift in and out of the action, sometimes just standing in the background. They might be angels, or a Greek chorus, or something else. They may not even be real, but their presence makes more sense of some of Lazarus’s odder scenes. In the shattering, pivotal scene featuring ‘new’ song When I Met You, the stacked, multitracked Bowies of his recording are replaced by one of the girls howling the other parts into Newton’s face whilst pushing him around.
It’s an immersive world that Bowie and writer Enda Walsh have conjured, crammed into the small Kings Cross Theatre by Van Hove. The apartment set feels limiting at first, but it’s utilised well as a blank canvas for Newton’s fractured visions, taking in club scenes, dream sequences, and the chaos of 2nd Avenue traffic through creative use of projections.
Characters appear on screen whilst also onstage, sometimes in sync, sometimes not. As ‘Lazarus’ goes on, it only becomes more visual. The Love is Lost sequence is a dazzling assault on the senses, not unlike the opening sequence of a Bond film – while, in the only use of an actual Bowie recording, Valentine enacts a shockingly violent murder to Sound and Vision.
At the end, Newton is on the floor again, as he seems, finally to find some peace, some closure, in a closing scene that echoes Space Oddity without using it. It’s left to our interpretation whether it’s death or escape, but it’s an elegaic ending.
There’s a curtain call, and a standing ovation, and then, as the cast file offstage, one face fills the central screen, as the applause grows.
Bravo, David. Bravo.
❉ ‘LAZARUS’ is playing at London’s King’s Cross Theatre 25th October 2016 to 22nd January 2017.
❉ The Lazarus original cast recording, including the three new Bowie songs, was released as a 2-CD and 3-LP set on Friday 21 October.