How to describe Ghost Quartet? Well, it isn’t a play or a musical or a concert or a story telling workshop … and yet it is. All of them. At once. And probably much more. The piece (that’s safest) by Tony award nominee Dave Molloy has gained something of a cult status and was chosen to open the new Boulevard Theatre in London last year. This production, featuring the writer, was recorded in New York in 2015 at the McKittrick Hotel which, just to add a further layer of confusion and intrigue isn’t actually a hotel anymore. Due to open in 1939 it was going to be the last word in luxury but the start of World War 2 put paid to that and the hotel was closed down until the new millennium. It has since become more of a performance venue – Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More had a residency there but like everything else this was halted in the wake of coronavirus.
It is perfect as a venue for Ghost Quartet, as the atmosphere is redolent with its own phantoms of the past (The Shining springs to mind) and that is one of the main points about this piece. It’s really a song cycle which examines spectres and spirits (including those of the alcoholic variety) through the lens of interlocking stories which are not relayed chronologically. As far as I could make out there were four (of course) separate narratives which ranged from the fantastical (something about a bear and an astronomer who lives in a tree) to the tragic (girl is hit by a subway train as she plays a video game on her phone) but all of the stories bleed into one another and are cross referenced, featuring variations on characters portrayed by (and, again, of course) the four performers. There are also appearances by fictional icons such as Scheherazade and Rose Red and literary reference is made to cultural figure such as James Joyce, David Bowie, Thelonious Monk, Stephen King, Stephen Sondheim and so on. There are three songs scattered throughout which are based on The Fall Of The House Of Usher though, other than this being a ghost/horror story, I’m not really sure why.
I can only assume that Poe’s story has some personal resonance for the writer because, in the main, this is a show which examines how the past haunts our present and how stuff we think has been locked away is still there – it’s just not visible. This notion is reinforced by the setting which looks like an attic with memories of the past scattered around waiting to be rediscovered. Though there is some dialogue, the show is mostly sung through – the power of music to conjure up the past is well documented. The songs themselves cover a range of styles and genres and it is worth it (nay necessary) to pay close attention to the lyrics which, while they don’t reveal all, are playfully witty and full of little surprises.
It’s interesting that such a ragbag of ideas and influences is played out within a very firm structure. The cycle is presented as though it is a double album with each song introduced by side, track number and title. The quartet of performers (Dave Malloy, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell and Brent Arnold) are all highly accomplished vocalists and instrumentalists. The two women do most of the heavy lifting as far as the vocals are concerned though the men are no slouches either. Bizarrely I kept thinking of Abba but Mama Mia this ain’t! Anyway, as it’s the kind of show where you’re being encouraged to think outside the box, I don’t think that matters too much. Occasionally members of the audience are drafted in for extra percussion duty and the ending when they are just left to get on with it is a nice touch. It is a very intimate occasion with many of the audience seated on the floor but the claustrophobic atmosphere adds to the dynamic tension of the performance. Be warned that if you do watch there is a 20 minute section which takes place in the dark…it is not your computer playing up….unless it’s the ghost in the machine.
Ghost Quartet can be found on You Tube. Click here (NB – There are other productions of the show available on You Tube but this is the one sanctioned by the author)
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