Another quick prologue to the review – Death Takes A Holiday marks the second musical I’ve personally reviewed at the Charing Cross with an all-white cast, this time numbering near 20. The choice to have a lack of diversity for a show set in 1920s Italy may be based on the notion that it’s all for the sake of historical accuracy (for any weight that argument still has this century) but this was equally a show that relied on varieties of British accents for each of the characters (often, clumsily, to demarcate some form of social stratification – even in Italy manservants sound like they come from North England apparently). Furthermore, the show anachronistically included lines like ‘Oh My God, He’s Gorgeous!’ , instantly breaking any sense of historical verisimilitude that was being created. Fundamentally, it all felt entirely unwarranted – particularly in a week when the lack of diversity in London plays has been made strikingly opaque. This is a show where the character of ‘Death’ takes physical form – why is that more plausible than having a diverse cast.
Southerland and co’s original misfire left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, one that was perpetuated somewhat by the show’s premise – at times almost too laughable and replete with mortality-based puns. Perhaps comparable to Sondheim’s Passion in both setting and subject (that too, dealing with mortality and romance in the wake of a military conflict), we alight on an Italian villa owned by the Duke Lambert, he, his newly-betrothed daughter and a cohort of others the miraculous survivors of an almighty car crash. That midnight, Death, now in human form, visits the Duke – enamoured both with the idea of investigating life as a mortal and with the betrothed woman Grazia. What ensues is some neo-Gothic romance, a tale of woe, anxiety, discovery and, fundamentally, love. With such gravity involved, it was startling to realise that none of these topics stopped Stone (or Meehan in his 2011 update) whipping out a few death puns (‘I’ve never come that close to death’ being the most infamous).
Yeston’s chamber piece is a fiendishly tricky one to direct – often incredibly static, devoid of sweeping set pieces or choreographed moments that have come to epitomise West End stages (and the aforementioned Titanic). Southerland tries to make up for this at times, yet many ballads or whimsical solos are rotoed to the spot. On the book side of things, Meehan (and earlier Stone, though it is hard to gauge who was responsible for what) fail somewhat to capture the same intense urgency Stone injected into his boat-based epic from 1997, with many of the dialogue scenes here feeling stilted. The ending of the show in particular felt somewhat curt, a swift and unsatisfying resolution with a protracted buildup.
The successes lie with the performers and the set – visual, oral, rather than emotional or contextual. Seldom does a lighting designer get a call-out in a review, but Matt Daw achieved a marvellous feat in his use of colour – working hand-in-hand with Morgan Large and Jonathan Lipman to constantly suffuse the stage with complimentary pallets and blue hues. Every scene was an exquisite masterclass on how to light a stage and the performers thereon – how to coordinate staging and blocking with costume and light – aspiring designers take note.
The performers acquitted themselves well – Chris Peluso as the titular Death (until he is replaced by James Gant, who also was a standout in this show (a repeated success after a turn (as another manservant) in Titanic)) belted out each number with ease and poise – Yeston’s proxy Phantom with his elusive, sometimes eerily confrontational and terrifying manner. Zoe Doano’s Grazia was granted her moments to shine, breaking through an underwritten romance to deliver an archetypal infatuated daughter-of-a-Duke.
A strange musical, perhaps, but a relief from some of the chirpier, cheerier billings on the West End. This isn’t a show that you’ll leave with the tunes wrapped around your head, but a mellower, slightly more enchanting piece – melancholic in its practice. The casting issues are hard to avoid however, and hopefully not something that will be repeated come The Braille Legacy, the next on the Charing Cross’s roster.
Photos by Scott Rylander and Annabel Vere