Review - Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre in Soho
While Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories is currently on its third West End run, a 2014 Off-Broadway musical about more spectral hauntings Ghost Quartet has arrived to open Soho's brand-new Boulevard Theatre. And if there are any ghosts (whether or not wearing nipple tassels) lingering on this site from its former life as the Raymond Revue Bar, the strip club that existed here from 1958 to 2004, they ought to be celebrating this venue's gorgeous re-birth as an extremely flexible and intimate theatre and cabaret space that can seat audiences of up to 160 people, with seating on two levels that also has a welcoming restaurant and bar on the floor below.
By coincidence, Ghost Quartet, featuring music, lyrics and text by Dave Malloy (who was also responsible for the 2016 Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 that started out with runs in specially created immersive theatre spaces), has arrived here just a month after the London premiere of Malloy's Preludes at Southwark Playhouse, I dubbed that show an art-house musical and called it both challenging and uncompromising. The exact same terms and words could be used to describe Ghost Quartet, only now we have an art-house musical at what is the perfect embodiment of an art-house venue.
As such, it is a bold statement of intent from artistic director Rachel Edwards, who has reunited the key creative team of the immersive version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd that she produced in London's oldest-working pie and mash shop in Tooting, south London in 2014 which subsequently transferred to both a specially created space on Shaftesbury Avenue, and later off-Broadway. Director Bill Buckhurst, designer Simon Kenny and musical director Benjamin Cox have created a similarly intricately and intimately realised aural and dramatic landscape that pulls you deep into strange, frequently perplexing but always fascinating world.
Part concept rock album made flesh (in the same way that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar first saw the light of day, or Green Day's American Idiot was transferred from album to the stage), the show is divided in both the programme and in the scenes that are announced before each happens into tracks from the four sides of a double album. But the sense of time and place is infinitely fluid; complete stories are told in each song but they buffer against each other and can be put together to form some kind of narrative shape about two sisters, Rose and Pearl.
The fragmentary nature of the storytelling sends you hurtling down different paths to try to make sense of it, making the show sometimes difficult to pin down. But you could, as I did, just surrender to the enveloping atmosphere of the in-the-round staging, with a set made up of the bric-a-brac of numerous musical instruments and packing cases, stacked to become a performance platform. Emma Chapman's astonishing lighting keeps redefining the space and providing different moods.
The four exceptional actors provide their own spellbinding musical accompaniment, with Zubin Varla (on piano), Niccolò Curradi (on cello) and Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon (both on multiple percussion instruments). There are times when I felt frustrated by the sheer amount of intellectual heavy-lifting that the show asks of its audience (though not the delightful way it invites audience members to provide additional percussion), but there are more moments of transcendent beauty that make it all worthwhile.
And it's not every show that also plies its audience with whisky, either.
Ghost Quartet tickets are available now.