❉ Heaven’s doors are shut, and death is a cabaret, old chum…
“In this version of the afterlife, the deceased occupy a sort of boozy limbo and there’s a looming question mark over what happens next… this is a vividly creative fusion of drama and music treating age-old themes in an exciting new way.”
Where do we go when we die? As well as being the bedrock of every religion ever, and the basis of countless myths and legends, this perennial question continues to exercise the curiosity of artists drawn to imagine the unimaginable: can the end of mortal life really be the end of everything?
The latest crew inspired to mine this universal cultural seam are theatre company Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton (writer/director) and singer/songwriter Biff Smith (music/lyrics) of peerless troubadours A New International. Their play with songs, a co-production with Citizens Theatre, has just completed its opening run at Glasgow’s Tramway, and now moves on to Edinburgh and Dundee. If you’re anywhere near those cities and have a yen for the gothic and the romantic, it’s well worth catching.
In this version of the afterlife, the deceased occupy a sort of boozy limbo in which Biff’s resident house band soundtrack their continued semi-existence. Heaven’s doors are shut due to admin issues echoing Brexit, and there’s a looming question mark over what happens next…
Kenneth MacLeod’s gorgeous design job begins on the main stage, which accommodates the eight-strong band of musicians as well as the dead characters, and from which artfully stacked coffins rise through earth and tree roots. Some minutes into the show, it’s a delightful surprise when a further performance space is revealed just above the caskets: the surface world of the graveyard where we observe various mourners, as well as a ghost hunter looking for material for his YouTube channel.
The audience are welcomed and treated as new “Necropolitans” by host/narrator Elicia Daly, and the story mostly revolves around two tragedies: the untimely demise of Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough) and the death many years previously of 19-year-old Young John (Malcolm Cumming) whose secret lover Old Peter (Peter Kelly) still visits his grave daily. In what is largely a fun and entertaining production, both these narratives are treated respectfully and achieve genuine emotional weight. The undead cast are rounded out by whisky-hoarding battle-axe Mrs Mark (a wonderful turn from Anne Louise Ross) and whisky-yearning Major Toast (Harry Ward, also excellent on guitar).
It’s the songs which really power this show. Biff Smith has an un-erring ear for melody, a voice which encompasses raw guts and enormous heart, and a supreme gift for lyrics that meld the witty and the meaningful. With he and the band (his usual A New International gang plus guests) all in ghostly white make-up, Smith’s stage presence is reminiscent of Cabaret’s Emcee, and he throws his wiry frame into some perfectly macabre dance moves.
Lenton’s script is a rhyming one, but the meter is loose enough that the couplets don’t feel forced, and there’s plenty of humour, memorably in the attempt to pass off “all and sundry” as a rhyme for “laundry”, and the very meta explanation of why young Little Annie has to be played by an adult performer – it’s a “practical matter” to use an “older actor”. The whole thing is also wonderfully Scottish, which imbues the text with much grit for the cast to relish.
There are some flaws in the show’s plotting and the internal logic of this afterlife – a climactic confrontation doesn’t amount to anything, and why is Little Annie able to manifest herself to the living when the Major is not? – but overall this is a vividly creative fusion of drama and music treating age-old themes in an exciting new way. As the opening song has it, they’re “Coming to a crypt near you” and will “See you in the graveyard soon”…
❉ A Vanishing Point-A New International production with The Citizens Theatre, The Dark Carnival is at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-9 March, and then Dundee Rep Theatre 13-16 March. www.vanishing-point.org
❉ Photo credits: M. Bodlovic.
❉ Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles