Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent addition to his theatre portfolio, The Other Palace, has a noble quest. Put simply, it is a place to develop and nurture new musical theatre writing. Working off a similar model used on Broadway, Lloyd Webber hopes that his venue will be able to allow for more diversity on the musical theatre scene and also develop emerging talent. Bravo!
Whisper House is the latest production to be staged in the main house, the second since the theatre was rebranded (formerly the St James’s). The production comes with a sound pedigree. Duncan Sheik, the show’s composer and co-lyricist also wrote the multi-award winning Spring Awakening – so we are in safe hands.
The first thing that you notice about the production is the bold design. Andrew Riley has created a sunken stage to emulate the design of a lighthouse. The space is both interesting and dramatic and gives you a flavour of what this new venue is all about. The shape of the space is not for your traditional musical.
Now we come to the story. Set in the 1940s in America, there is the threat of invasion from German U-boats in the harbour. Christopher, a small boy, is sent to live with his aunt after the death of his pilot father and his mother’s incarceration in an asylum. It soon becomes apparent the aunt is living with a dark secret which has something to do with the two ghosts who semi-narrate proceedings.
The promise that this piece is a ghost story, for me, never quite delivers. It feels somehow a naive concept, one that is never quite fulfilled. The historical story, with its own sense of fear and foreboding, I believe, is enough. Adding in the ghosts waters down the potential message which audiences could take away. After all, it’s a story set in America, with a threat from foreign countries and restrictions being imposed on immigrants. Sound familiar? If the story had focused on this element, the allegory would have been a better fit. But that, after all, what a developmental process is all about.
If the ghosts had to be part of the story, I would keep it to one – just the female ghost. The whole cast were excellent but Niamh Perry has immense stage presence which draws the eye. Her voice is also phenomenal, able to be both haunting and beautiful. If the ghosts needed to be there, I think a focus on the female character would have intensified the mystic and menace, especially in the scene where the ghosts beckon young Christopher into the water.
As well as Perry, Simon Lipkin’s performance as the Sheriff is noteworthy. The first half suffers a little from pacing issues, but that is rectified in act II, largely by Lipkin’s energy. He is interesting to watch and perhaps the most developed of the characters,
The music for the production is the star. It is a wonderful score, fitting to the story brilliantly. The band of seven works well together to produce a wonderful sound that fills the space but is never overpowering in such an intimate venue.
The show is enjoyable and is interesting in its construction. I would like to see the piece again once it has undergone the development as part of The Other Palace experience and see what comes out of this great experiment of Lloyd Webber’s.