Music and lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Book and lyrics: Kyle Jarrow
Director: Adam Lenson
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Anyone who can turn a Frank Wedekind play into a hit musical is worthy of respect and so be it with Duncan Sheik. His 2006 show Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway and won multiple Tony awards, although its West End run was shorter than it deserved. Sheik’s style of angry rock matched well with a drama of 19th Century adolescent angst, but the question now is whether it suits a tale of the paranormal.
The setting is a lighthouse off the north-east coast of America, the time is during World War II. U-boats swarm around and still more sinister forces are at work inside. Christopher (Fisher Costello-Rose and Stanley Jarvis share the role) is a young boy who is effectively orphaned, his mother becoming suicidal after his father’s death. He is sent to live with the lighthouse keeper, his crippled Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington), a lonely and embittered spinster, and her helper Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh), who is Japanese and not welcomed by all in his adopted country at this time. The local Sheriff (Simon Lipkin) does his best to evict him.
When Christopher becomes aware of the presence of two ghosts (Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry) the story, a meeting of childhood innocence, adult guilt and revenge from beyond the grave, takes on key elements of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, adapted into an opera by Benjamin Britten. Of course, Sheik’s style is entirely different and, much as his music has the ability to convey strong emotions, it fails to suggest creepy, supernatural forces. When it needs to whisper, it shouts.
Whisper House began life as a concept album, as did early works by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who recently acquired The Other Palace to showcase new musicals. A seven-piece band, conducted by Musical Director Daniel A Weiss, sits in a crescent behind a circular performance space, which descends into a pit. This semi-staging gives director Adam Lenson little to work with to conjure up an atmosphere of sinister suspense, just murky lighting and sea mists, but powerful performances, particularly by Pilkington and Goh give real meat to the drama.
The show, conceived with Keith Powell, has a book by Kyle Jarrow, who shares credit with Sheik for the lyrics. Jarrow gives the show modern relevance by suggesting parallels between the plight of an alien in 1940s America and attitudes towards refugees there now. The story is told almost entirely by spoken word and the songs are sung almost entirely by Bailey and Perry, thereby creating a strange separation in which the ghosts become mere observers and commentators, little integrated into the main narrative until very late on.
Overall, the show feels disjointed, the song lyrics not connecting fully with the story, nor the music with the paranormal themes, nor the ghostly presences with the earthly drama. Perhaps a lot more work is needed to weld all this together seamlessly, but, in the meantime, Sheik’s thrilling rock anthems still provide plenty to enjoy.
Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Contributed