Edinburgh review: Ghost Quartet (Summerhall)

A brilliantly original new musical from Dave Malloy at the Edinburgh Festival

Ghost Quartet
Ghost Quartet
© Ryan Jensen

Originality in the writing of musicals is a quality to be cherished – and Dave Malloy, composer of this idiosyncratic quartet for four voices and many instruments has it in vast quantities.

His talent has already been recognised by the fact that his new show Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 opens on Broadway in October. But this is a chance to catch an earlier chamber piece and to realise, instantly, that this great shambling bear of a composer is a man to watch.

"I've got 101 stories and every single one of them is a lie," sings Gelsey Bell in the opening song ("Side One, Track One" since the entire event is presented as a four-sided album). That's a hint of one of the multiple narrative threads spanning centuries: Scheherazade is in there, along with a rewrite of Edgar Allan Poe's House of Usher, and a warped fairy story of a two sisters who love an astronomer who lives in a tree. There's also a broken camera, a photograph of a ghost, and a latter day tale about a murder on the subway.

I've probably missed a few of them; Ghost Quartet is nothing if not complex. But in its tangled web lies deep, dark magic as many ghosts emerge into the light. ("If I could be any kind of dead person, I'd be a ghost" one song gleefully announces.).They speak in many different musical styles too, from folk, to honky tonk to the most emotive pop.

The whole thing is almost literally entrancing, as you strain to catch meaning while simultaneously revelling in the sheer fertility of creation on offer. The performers – Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, Bell and Malloy himself – are superb musicians and compelling performers. My only reservation was how much of the show took place in near darkness; with people this communicative on stage you want to be able to see as well as hear.

Ghost Quartet runs at Summerhall at 9pm until 28 August (not Tuesdays)

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