Thursday, 20 April 2017

Theatre review: Whisper House

The venue formerly known as the St James Theatre has been bought by Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC, MD to stage new musicals and, presumably on the basis that it being hidden in a back street wasn't obstacle enough to audiences finding it, has been renamed The Other Palace. A nod, I guess, to it being between the Victoria Palace and Buckingham Palace, but with there actually being two Palace Theatres in London already, one of them down the road, that technically makes this The Other, Other, Other Palace. In any case, everyone seems to read it as The Other Place, which is yet another theatre entirely, so basically what I'm saying is good luck with the #brand recognition, guys. Anyway, my first trip there since the name change is to a musical from Spring Awakening and American Psycho songwriter Duncan Sheik, but Whisper House is a much less explosive affair than either of those two.

Conceived by Keith Powell and with book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, Whisper House is a ghost story set in a Maine lighthouse during the Second World War, where orphaned Christopher (Fisher Costello-Rose, alternating with Stanley Jarvis,) is sent to live with his Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington,) whom he's never met before.

The story touches on the internment of Japanese-Americans during the War, as the disabled Lily employs Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh) to help around the lighthouse, and decides to hide him when the Sheriff (a puppetless Simon Lipkin in a darker performance than usual) comes looking for him. And the area is also haunted by the angry ghosts (Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry) of a pair of singers who drowned nearby twenty years earlier; having died before they could declare their love for each other they now wish similar misery on everyone else, and whisper suicidal thoughts to the living.

Sheik's music was the obvious draw that made me book for me and Vanessa to see this and I can't say I was disappointed - the opening number "Better to be Dead" might have reminded me of "Hotel California" a bit but it's an atmospheric start to Adam Lenson's production, with a real boost from Andrew Riley's set, which avoids the obvious by suggesting the lighthouse with concentric circles down into the stage, creating both a grubby and eerie effect. Unfortunately it struggles against the material to maintain this atmosphere: The idea that the ghosts are malevolent isn't really played up enough, and while Perry tries for eerie the impressively bouffanted Bailey is a bit too lively to come across as the angry dead. They're not helped by the musical's conceit to have the ghosts sing almost all the songs, meaning they don't really get the chance to establish their identity because they're busy commenting on everyone else's - Lipkin taking over the vocals for "The Tale of Solomon Snell" is a highlight partly because it's a change of pace.

The ghosts aren't the only thing that are barely there - Jarrow's story is fairly slight, only touching on a lot of areas and not really delving into them: The unspoken feelings between Lily and Yasuhiro could have been more strongly shown as an echo of the love between the ghosts, and while Costello-Rose is good in a child role that holds the whole show together, he's still playing a pretty unlikeable child whose default mode seems to be betraying people's trust.

I think the biggest problem with this production is the unnecessary interval; the show would run at just 80 minutes without it, and the second act follows on immediately from where the first left off, so it's one of those breaks that's clearly there for ice cream and drink sales and no other reason. Breaking the story up like this only highlights the way it feels underdeveloped, which is a shame as elsewhere Lenson's production plays to the show's strengths: A good cast make the most of underdeveloped characters, the design builds up the atmosphere where the book can't always manage it, and the songs are enjoyable and memorable - I'd be interested in a recording, although it seems all that exists is Sheik's original concept album. Much as I've picked at it a lot here I did enjoy Whisper House, just wished there wasn't so much about it felt unfinished - it has the potential to make for a truly memorable show but isn't really there yet in its current form.

Whisper House by Duncan Sheik, Kyle Jarrow and Keith Powell is booking until the 27th of May at the Other, Other, Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre.)

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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