Ghost Quartet (Boulevard Theatre)

For my second Dave Malloy musical this year, I took myself into Soho to the former home of the Raymond Revue Bar, and to the theatre launched by his granddaughter, Fawn James. Ghost Quartet is the first production to launch the season helmed by the Boulevard Theatre’s artistic director Rachel Edwards.

While I admired Preludes over at the Southwark Playhouse, I didn’t really like it, and yet I both admire and like Ghost Quartet. Best approached as a concept album than with any expectation of a linear storyline, this musical is presented to us as a set of sides and tracks, as in the old vinyl days. Each track moves interconnected stories forward, but it can be confusing trying to keep up with who’s who and what period of time we are in.

The music is a mix of country folk and avant garde, with the four actor-musicians (Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla) playing a range of instruments from a melodic piano to discordant percussion. The songs are both haunting and disturbing, often both together, and there are moments of total darkness (save for the odd emergency lights which stand for stars) and bright, warm moments such as the ode to various types of whisky and friendship.

Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon
Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon

Ghost Quartet takes elements from many myths and stories which have been passed down, from The Twa Sisters through Edgar Allen Poe to the Arabian Nights. The characters blend into each other and time is meaningless (at one point a character says to another “do you remember when” and is told “I don’t think that has happened yet”). The new space at the Boulevard is somewhat claustrophobic but the staging in the round works well with this piece, as audience members are encouraged to join in the music, have a drink, and ultimately take charge of the stage during the last number.

Unlikes Preludes, which kept the audience at arms length, while detailing every aspect of the story unfolding in front of them, Ghost Quartet keeps its audience guessing and makes them work hard to stay involved in what’s going on. Clever lighting (Emma Chapman), sound design (David Gregory) and musical direction (Benjamin Cox) keeps the heightened atmosphere going, and the four actors have a chemistry between them that allows them to be believable in short vignettes which bring their characters together.

I admired Varla’s performance earlier in the year at Equus, and he displays a very different aspect of his skill-set here, proving to be a fine pianist when channelling the work of Thelonious Monk, who may or not be present in the space as a ghost. Bawden is delicate and ethereal as Rose and Roxie, children who are affected by spirit visitations, while Memon’s vocal range and distorted microphone gives her characters a sense of horror and abandon. Curradi is less intense, but brings a wide range of instruments together to weave an effective soundscape.

Zubin Varla
Zubin Varla

Dave Malloy’s score, text and lyrics pull you into the show and the songs are of the type that reward mutiple listens: from the opening number I Don’t Know they are toe-tapping and inclusive. Subway has a sense of the macabre, Starchild of innocence, The Telescope of chance, Tango Dancer of passion, and Soldier and Rose of regret. This is a complex show that can be pieced together like a jigsaw, or shaken in the air to see where the shapes fall.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst and designed by Simon Kenny, with movement direction by Georgina Lamb (exploring places, spaces, and characters), Ghost Quartet continues at the Boulevard Theatre in Soho until 4 January. I’d heartily recommend you go and see it if you can; it’s a new kind of musical in a beautiful and flexible new theatre space.

Photo credits Marc Brenner.