Writer: Dave Malloy
Director: Bill Buckhurst
Reviewer: Ava Eldred
The inaugural production at Soho’s new Boulevard Theatre, Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet is a haunting song cycle about sisters and storytellers – by way of lovers, mothers, soldiers and ghosts – which intoxicates the audience almost from the moment the four players enter the stage, instruments in hand, ready to tell their tale.
Malloy’s music is undoubtedly the star of the show. Fun and fantastical in parts, heartbreaking in others, Ghost Quartet’s beauty lies in the lyrics and arrangements, here with additional work by musical director Benjamin Cox. The track list allows the performers to play to their many strengths, and firmly establishes Malloy for the London audience as a key player in off-beat and whimsical musical theatre.
Ghost Quartet is a thematic rather than plot driven piece, and while this works perfectly once the connections become clear, it could be considered a downfall, as trying to work out what is happening in a literal sense distracts temporarily from the action. However, the audience is afforded numerous moments to feel clever when they spot a connecting thread, and as the piece continues, we realise that it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand it all. The cast is so competent that we feel completely safe in the actors’ hands, and trust the journey they are taking us on implicitly.
While all four actor-musicians are flawlessly cast, Ghost Quartet – at its heart – is a story about women, and the stage is never more alive than when Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon are playing opposite each other. Bawden’s performance of Starchild is rousing and otherworldly, making it explicitly clear in one song the kind of world we now find ourselves in. Memon’s versatility is astounding. It is difficult – as she juggles multiple complicated looking instruments with excellent comic timing, and a voice so soulful it could almost raise ghosts – to imagine something she can’t do. Zubin Varla’s warmth, as well as his skills on the piano with no sheet music in sight, must also be mentioned, as must Niccolo Curradi’s dark humour and underscoring on the cello which adds a depth to the piece.
The Boulevard Theatre lends itself well to Ghost Quartet, allowing for audience participation which is integrated so organically that the participants barely have time to refuse or be scared, and a design by Simon Kenny which allows the performers to play to every seat in the house, and is perfectly married with the cyclical nature of the story. The lighting, by Emma Chapman, is haunting at moments and completely inclusive of the audience at others. David Gregory’s sound design also deserves credit, again including the audience whilst hinting at something otherworldly.
The ending leaves the audience wiping away tears, yet the mood in the room is celebratory rather than sad. The story has been passed on to them now, and what a privilege that is. Ghost Quartet is full of heart. Full of life. Which, for a tale largely about the dead, is no mean feat. A triumph.
Runs until 4 January 2020 | Image: Marc Brenner