Music, Lyrics, and Book: Molly O’Gorman
Director: Elena Yianni
One gets the impression from Ghost Light that writer Molly O’Gorman spent some of her formative years glued to the box watching ‘50s movie melodrama. There is certainly hint of both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard in her bonkers but thoroughly enjoyable new musical. George Cukor’s A Star is Born might have been on her viewing list too.
Child superstars The Moran Sisters are the “most popular act, both sides of the Atlantic”. Bedecked in pink taffeta skirts, puff-sleeve blouses, and signature ponytails they fill stadiums and shift albums by the millions. The more gifted older sister Charlie (Annie Thorpe) enjoys the honour of a countdown to her 18th birthday on national radio, but by 21 she is a washed-up ketamine addict desperate to quit the business. Now in her mid-20s, she lives a sedate life married to a plumber called Rob, eking out her days as a receptionist filing photographs of warts in a dreary south coast medical practice. When asked if she has hobbies, Charlie cites ‘breakfast and boxsets’. It is that kind of life.
Younger sister Kat (Shannon Davidson) lives for “the bright lights and adoration” of her fans, but without Charlie the show is just not the same. Even the best efforts of sleazy manager-turned-husband Dave (Simon Mulligan) cannot conceal the fact the shows are half full, the reviews are bad, the box-office tour receipts are falling, and the souvenir mugs are not shifting, even at half price. As Norma Desmond might have it, Kat’s still big, it’s just the audiences that got small. She is the titular ghost light: the single bulb left burning bright on the stage of a theatre when the audience has gone home and the building is dark. Popping pills like they are Skittles the girl is on a slippery slope to cocaine-fuelled rock-bottom, and she just keeps on sliding.
A chance tour visit to a local music venue sees the sisters reunite backstage. Kat, still bitter at what she views as Charlie’s abandonment, manipulates her elder sister into making a guest appearance in the show. “No one cares who’s behind a desk, but they do care who’s on stage,” she tells her. The audience goes wild. Dodgy Dave spots an opportunity. Ditch the fading star that he married and persuade Charlie to take up the reins; after all, somebody is going to have to pay for his wife’s long overdue trip to rehab and it is not going to be him.
Will Charlie forgo the attractions of life as a tradesman’s wife in the hopes of saving her sister? And without the adoration of her ageing fans will Kat survive? Anticipate twists, turns, betrayals and skulduggery, and a glorious onstage sisterly meltdown that breaks the Internet in 12 countries.
It is fair to say that this is a story that could easily be headed in the direction of spoof, or at least a kind of ‘knowing’ campery. But, beyond a hint of meta at the beginning, with both key characters applying make-up in front of stage mirrors (and an opening number entitled I Know Why You’re Here), Ghost Light is a show that knows melodrama only works when it is played seriously. The cast lets its hair down a little at the outset of the second half with a jazz-inspired tap number that verges on parody. Aside from that, this almost entirely implausible narrative is delivered with a laudably straight face.
O’Gorman manages to cram most of Ghost Light’s extensive exposition in her song lyrics, leaving the characters plenty of time to play off each other in the book. Aside from an overlong show-down between the siblings in the second half there is never a lack of momentum here. Davidson commits entirely to charting Kat’s decline from stardom to addiction. She can sing too, most obviously in the show’s excellent second number Encore, Encore. Mulligan is a suitably sinister figure as the abusive Dave and gets top marks for his tap skills. The excellent Thorpe gets to sing the show’s two best songs: One Chance, whose melody provides the piece’s recurring motif, and the anthemic closing number I Won’t Be Blamed which you may well be humming on the way out.
Ghost Light is nuts. It ought not to work. It does. In fact, it is a whole heap of fun.
Runs until 29 July 2023