It takes a supreme amount of confidence to produce a song cycle on stage. Writing one obviously takes talent and vision, but investing the money necessary to bring it to life on stage is brave. As the women sitting next to me at yesterday’s performance of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet at the new Boulevard Theatre in Soho commented after the show, “it’s not what I expected. It’s not a musical – but I liked it.”
Not a narrative musical, closer to a concept album, a song cycle unites a series of songs by riffing off a theme or series of themes. The connections can be tenuous, the styles eclectic – the best song cycles leave you feeling immersed in a host of thoughts and ideas, the worst leave you wishing for more of a story. It’s just as well, then, that Malloy’s Ghost Quartet is the former, and that director Bill Buckhurst has brought together an astonishingly talented cast of four actor-musicians to perform it.
As soon as the actors come onto the stage, set in the round and dominated by suitcases and a bewildering array of musical instruments, they greet the audience directly, dispelling any notion of a conventional fourth wall show – and that interaction only grows as the show goes on with whisky handed round in one song and audience members invited to help with the music later on. It’s testament to the warmth of the cast that the interaction feels completely natural – an exchange between friends, not an awkward moment of audience participation.
Each song is introduced by the cast by track number and title – a talking album listing – and the songs weave between ideas of family, love, infidelity, loss, whisky and, somewhat incongruously, Thelonious Monk.
The show, performed with astonishing charm and apparently infinite musical talent by Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla, creates the sensation of being in a smoky jazz club where the haze only clears intermittently to reveal glimpses of relationships unfolding or lives passing; or in an old black and white cinema where the film has all but corroded, just coming into focus every now and then with tantalising moments of melodrama, love and loss. It’s a place that any audience would surely long to be, and coming out of the theatre into a world rushing by in sharp focus, full of political misery and festive stress, I couldn’t help but wish I could fade back into Malloy’s ghostly world for just a bit longer.
Ghost Quartet plays at the Boulevard Theatre until 4 January