The first show in a new theatre is both intriguing and exciting; for an audience member it is a chance to see a new space, to understand its possible configuration while assessing its comfort, sight-lines and to an extent its style. With new theatres popping up all the time, there’s a feeling of change across theatreland and a focus on big commercial venues including a new Nimax build by Tottenham Court Road Station and a second theatre for Nicholas Hytner at King’s Cross. And while there is a cost to some smaller venues like The Bunker which has announced permanent closure in the Spring, others like the King’s Head and Southwark Playhouse are also heading to new purpose-built venues. Somewhere in between is the new Boulevard Theatre, a classy, intimate space in the heart of once-seedy Soho which held its first press night last week for inaugural production Ghost Quartet.
In an area still undergoing extensive corporate redevelopment, this new theatre is a stylish and very comfortable addition to the West End landscape. Complete with a bar and restaurant all modishly decked in pink surfaces and rainforest wallpaper, the auditorium itself is an intimate space arranged in the round for its first unveiling. A central floorspace of burnished copper acts as the stage, with individual chairs – no flip-up stalls here – and an upstairs balcony area with additional seating. In any configuration, the audience will always feel part of the action while the entire concept has a 60s Mad Men vibe that suits the cabaret feel to the opening show.
Ticket prices are fairly reasonable for the area at £24-£36 – down on Shaftesbury Avenue a restricted view in the Balcony would be at least that with the best stalls view now at over a £100 – while the £12 Roulette Ticket scheme is a potential masterstroke if you book early. 10 tickets are available for every performance with seats allocated at random on the day.
Choosing a show to launch your brand new theatre should feel significant, it needs to showcase the facilities, technology and creativity of the artistic team while somehow advocating the brand, what sets it apart from other venues and showing what audiences can expect from the season ahead. But does anyone really remember these first shows with any notability? When the National Theatre launched in 1963 it chose Hamlet, while more recently in 2017 Nicholas Hytner christened the new Bridge Theatre stage with Richard Bean’s Young Marx which opened to warm if not ecstatic reviews but arguably remains the best new play the venue has managed to produce in the subsequent two years.
The Boulevard Theatre has chosen to host the London debut of Dave Malloy’s strange musical Ghost Quartet, and in some ways it is a curious decision. With its fragmented stories and concept-album structure, this is a show that requires the audience to pay attention as several different narratives are woven together, told in a jumbled, mix-up way, out of sequence, and even then you may not be sure exactly what is happening. And while it doesn’t feel like a show you’ll remember much about in a few months time, director Bill Buckhurst marshals the resources of the new venue to create an atmospheric and entertaining experience.
It is the right time of year for a stories of death and remembrance, officially opening on Halloween, Ghost Quartet uses four performers to tell four thematically related stories across 90-minutes. Unusually, the show is conscious of it’s album-like roots, announcing the Side (of which there are of course four) and Track number ahead of every song which has a way of disrupting the rhythm so the audience isn’t drawn too far into any single story, but it also helps to maintain the flow, like chapter headings announcing changes of direction and musical style.
Malloy’s four narrators take on multiple roles throughout the piece, performing as different characters as well as playing all of the music on the instruments that litter the stage. There is no formal scene setting or book, every story is directly created within each ‘track’ so the performers must use the lyrics to conjure the changing locations, settings and scenarios, while moving back and forth between them as Malloy weaves between his various tales.
Most recognisable is a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which recurs throughout Ghost Quartet as Roxie Usher dies after her child is taken from her and her family keep her body in a vault beneath her mother’s bedroom. In a series of songs entitled ‘Usher’, the narrative moves back and forth through time as the seven year old Roxie talks about an imaginary best friend before later returning from the dead. In another strand two sisters Rose Red and Pearl White vie for the affections of The Astronomer who tries to show them both the constellations, but in the third section Rose Red enlist the help of a magic bear (yes really) to kill her love rival but must gather ingredients for a magic potion, while in the final story a young woman named Pearl is pushed onto the tracks at a subway station.
The names Rose and Pearl connects several of these stories, all in some way versions of the same women but interacting with each other differently depending on the narrative. It is sometimes confusing whether it’s the jealous Rose Red in the Astronomer’s story or the young Rose with a camera who sees Pearl’s train track murder who is being referenced and in Buckhurst’s version they are the same performer. But Malloy’s approach is deliberately opaque, making a wider point about the ways in which all human machinations end the same way, in our obsession with death and regret.
On a stage cluttered with musical instruments, furniture and an assortment of junk that reflects the eclectic tone of the piece, Simon Kenny’s design is not so much a set as a studio, albeit one with different layers allowing Buckhurst to vary the height at different points as stories reach crescendo or talk of the stars. Yet, anything that too obviously suggests time, place or character is deliberately held back, the room is a musician’s space not an actor’s one, and despite the busy mass of items that come close to the audience, nothing detracts from the prominence of the song lyrics and storytelling focus. Emphasis is created by Emma Chapman with a lighting design that adds texture to everything from cheery group numbers to haunting solos and dramatic strobe effects during the Poe horror sections.
And perhaps in a clear signal of what to expect from future Boulevard productions, there is an focus on fully interacting with the audience, passing out glasses of whiskey as they sing ‘Four Friends’, a few boxes of percussion instruments to shake in time with the beat during the Side One finale ‘Any Kind of Dead Person’ and a cunning use of people from the front row to actually play instruments in the show’s concluding number ‘The Wind and Rain.’ It’s all done with ease, as though the barrier between performers and viewers barely exists which is usually so hard to achieve in live theatre or even concerts. The space encourages direct involvement the way listening to an album at home feels like a personal experience with the musicians.
Malloy’s musical influences are as eclectic as his narrative ones, and the 23-song soundtrack use a piano, cello, drums and guitar as their base but incorporate all kinds of percussion and other instruments to create sounds as diverse as folk music, ballads, gospel and avant-garde styles amongst others. And despite its disconnected approach, there’s something about Malloy’s combinations that works, it may not always make a lot of sense as a complete experience but it always maintains your interest. There is a lively warmth to the production which despite its subject matter helps you to feel included even when you’re lost in its twists and helps to maintain an energy that drives your investment as it unfolds.
Performers Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla are hugely talented actor-musicians with the very difficult job of guiding the audience through so many bits of narrative. Together they create the changing atmosphere of Malloy’s songs and it is testament to their skills and performance as a company that they hold this eclectic evening together. They look to Varla – recently seen in the West End transfer of Equus – on the piano to set the tempo who brings a darkness to his role as The Astronomer, with Memon adding a haunting quality as the various Pearl characters, while Bawden adds emotion and occasionally an ethereal quality as the Roses.
Reminiscent of Hadestown a similar concept-album approach that reimagined the song cycle of musical theatre, Ghost Quartet is a interesting experience if not always a satisfying or even a very clear one, so in what has been a very big year for musicals it may be easily forgotten. Malloy’s experimental musical does however take the building blocks of the genre in a new and unusual direction by utilising different music styles and a fragmented structural approach which certainly has presence in the intimacy of this new performance space. If this inaugural show means the new Boulevard Theatre is setting out its stall for a programme of unusually staged and challenging productions in the future then there is every reason to come back soon.