Pros: Expert musicianship in a story about an interesting period.
Cons: A ghost story with no scares.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s note in the programme describes his ambition for The Other Palace to be somewhere for musical artists to “try out and refine new material”. On this basis I’m charitably judging Whisper House as a work in progress – although presenting it to a packed press night indicates that the production team consider this slight piece ready to face the full glare of critical scrutiny.
“A dark and thrilling musical ghost story”, says the publicity. Sounds right up my street. Set during World War II on a North American shore, the plot involves young Christopher (Stanley Jarvis on press night) arriving to stay with his grumpy aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington) in the lighthouse where she’s lived all her life. Lily has a club foot, which isn’t ideal with all those stairs to climb – perhaps this accounts in part for her moodiness. Lily has help in the form of Mr Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh) to whom Christopher takes an instant dislike, as his father’s plane was shot down by the Japanese. This tragedy sent his mother off the rails and into the local asylum, hence the boy’s relocation to aunt Lily’s.
When the local sheriff (Simon Lipkin) announces that the state is kicking out all untrustworthy foreigners (modern resonance – tick!) Lily attempts to keep Mr Yasuhiro hidden, but the plan is foiled when Christopher – who turns out to be a terrible sneak – goes blabbing to the sheriff.
Played out on a simple but effective circular set, there is the hint of a decent story here, with echoes of The Go-Between and any yarn involving children and evacuation you can think of. Pilkington and Lipkin have charisma to spare and wonderful comic timing, and Pilkington imbues the more dramatic moments with some emotional heft. But, as the script stands, it’s difficult to really care about these characters and their obvious story arcs. Even when sneaky Christopher runs off and nearly drowns – which, bizarrely, occurs twice – what should be a thrilling theatrical moment feels mechanical and plot-serving instead.
But what of the ghosts? The story is narrated by two nameless ghosts who roam the stage invisibly, not interacting with the living characters at all. This spectral pair were desperately in love, we’re told, but dared not act on their feelings because of religious differences between their families. Unfulfilled, they drowned when a yacht crashed into the rocks because the lighthouse wasn’t lit, and now they haunt the vicinity merrily singing that all and sundry would be “better off dead”.
The trouble with the ghosts is that they neither have a convincing narrative of their own, nor do they influence the main action of the play. They are well-sung (Niamh Perry is particularly gutsy as Female Ghost) but irrelevant. Worse than that, though, is the fact that they’re not remotely scary. They sing that we should be “terrified” – terrified of what? They don’t do anything, and no effort has been made to present them as spooky or disturbing. Some tiny moments of stage magic involving a candle and a puff of smoke are all we get of the supernatural.
You’d have thought the music could help evoke a creepy atmosphere, but composer/lyricist Duncan Sheik doesn’t bend his skills in that natural direction, instead treating us to a succession of rather jaunty tunes which fall between the two stools of chamber musical and rock opera. The best of the bunch is Solomon Snell, but all of them are encumbered with banal lyrics and unimaginative rhymes you can hear coming a mile off. However the seven-strong band are clearly very fine musicians, notably the reed and brass players.
There’s an interesting – albeit repetitive – projected backdrop, and everyone involved in the production is obviously doing their best. It’s just a shame that the script is so bland and the music so uninspired.
Director: Adam Lenson
Book and Lyrics: Kyle Jarrow
Music and Lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Producer: Amanda Holland
Booking Until: 27 May 2017
Booking Link: https://www.theotherpalace.co.uk/whats-on/whisper-house