The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Conceived, written and directed by Matthew Lenton

Music & Lyrics: Biff Smith

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Below the soil, amidst the worms and the spiders you might just hear clinking glasses, it might just be The Dark Carnival.

When we die – we die. Tragic I hear you say, but as Mrs Eugenia Mark herself proclaim; ‘it’s more fun than being alive’. With upstairs a members only club, and the other option far from appealing – most ghouls like to chill with one another having a bit of a ‘swally‘.

With a million stories of the dearly departed, we focus this time on John (Malcolm Cumming) a young gentleman who was taken early, selfishly and abhorrently. His lover who, to this day, places flowers on his headstone, is keen for closure which might be delivered through Little Annie, the most recent inhabitant of the underground.

As with lovers, the dead do not judge – they do however make for a banging live house band. The pre-show marketing pushes the Vaudeville aspect, setting high expectations for musical prowess. Vanishing Point and New International have crafted a soundtrack worth praise. In particular, Biff Smith’s lyrical genius means you’ll still be singing Necropolitan the following morning. His voice, aesthetic and tone are a timeless blend. There’s a sense of French Jazz, Leonard Cohen but even remnants of the late 70s Muppet Show, and what a concoction it makes.

As the whiskey flows, the dead carry on living. Kenneth Macleod’s set design slips the raised platform to give us a sense of scale. We may be down in the depths, but we can see what they see in the land of the breathing. Elicia Daly’s narrator guides us through induction as recent daisy pushers. She is especially engaging whilst breaking the fourth wall.

For a nation so concealed about the afterlife, we revel in the macabre (some pseudo-psychology there for you all). We don’t wish to talk about death, but we adore exploring it thematically. More so, we do one thing better than any other – laughing about it. Harry Ward and Ann Louise Ross in the role of trainee ghost Montgomery Toast and the late Eugenia Mark brings class, elegance, pathos but a healthy dose of Scots humour.

Didn’t you hear? Heaven’s closed – they have to keep all the pleasures for the more ‘deserving’ after all. The subtext of Dark Carnival is almost perfect, stitched into the narrative with a subtleness unexpected for a production with such unsubtle imagery. Natali McCleary’s role as the oft intoxicated Angel, sneering down below works perfectly to reinforce the border between heaven, earth and the rabble. The austerity of the dead – punished for merely (not)living.

Where the subtext falls short is a push for a false finale, up until now The Dark Carnival has kept its underlying commentary precise, clear, but outside of the narrative. In an odd move, Little Annie makes a rallying cry to batter on the doors of heaven. It leads to a very poignant ending, stirs the audience and perhaps the highlight of an already sumptuously smooth soundtrack. It just dips the flow the production had thus far.

These grim grinning ghosts do so much more than socialise. They live on. Matthew Lenton’s script stirs an immeasurable amount of emotion, achieved through its equally talented cast. You won’t know if your crying with tears, sorrow or happiness. Its commentary is articulate and commendable minus one ill-judged push, it’s comedic sense grimly cheerful but is all set-in motion by happy haunts who materialise to sing, recite spoken word and engage.

Runs until 9 March 2019 then continues touring | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic & Niall Walker

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The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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