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DIVA: Live From Hell! at The Turbine Theatre – review

The fiendish solo show starring Luke Bayer continues until 3 September

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Luke Bayer in DIVA: Live From Hell!
© Harry Elletson

You don't have to be completely obsessed with musical theatre to enjoy DIVA: Live From Hell!, but it certainly helps. First seen in New York, where having an encyclopedic knowledge of theatrical divas, niche lyric quotes and obscure MT references is generally regarded with rather more affection than it is over here, this twisted campfest shimmies in like a diabolic alliance of Glee, Hedwig and The Angry Inch and Death Becomes Her. It's whip-smart and often very funny, and wow do creatives Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics) and Nora Brigid Monahan (book and characters) know their stuff.

A confessional cabaret rather than a conventional musical, it features über-stagey, homicidal teenager Desmond Channing (more of a diva than Hello Dolly's Carol and probably a lot more ruthless) stuck on an infernal loop, doomed to perform his glitzy, bitchy nightclub act in perpetuity in order to explain the heinous showbiz-related crimes that led to his permanent damnation. It's a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery… oh wait, sorry, no that's Chicago, isn't it. However, substitute ambition and jealousy for greed and adultery, and that's pretty much what DIVA: Live From Hell! is about, as Channing, Queen Bee of his Florida High School's Drama society, is dangerously discombobulated by the arrival from NYC of rival student Evan Harris (surely the similarity in name to Evan Hansen is deliberate?) who turns out to be drop dead gorgeous, straight, talented, and a shoo-in for the lead role in the next production.

Although outside of Debbi Clarke's excellent band (named Geri And Her Men….say it out loud: Jerry Herman), there is only one onstage performer (Luke Bayer in an all-guns-blazing, triple-threat, knockout turn), there are multiple characters, all brought to life with consummate skill and a remarkable ability to switch demeanours and voices in the blink of an eye.

Bayer conveys Channing's competitiveness and snobbishness with a flamboyance and twinkling good humour that stops you from fully taking in just how nasty the character actually is, at least until things turn really dark. He makes vivid the contrast between him and the more serious, infinitely nicer Evan. He even tugs at the heartstrings with a tender but funny portrait of stage manager Allie Hewitt, Channing's unwitting sidekick-cum-human-punchbag who's way smarter and more intuitive than she's given credit for. Bayer may be the ace card in Joe McNeice's adrenalised production, but the show is peppered with simple but effective theatrical tricks and brief, ingenious references to other iconic shows.

The songs are serviceable pastiches of recognised Broadway genres and, if not particularly memorable, do showcase Bayer's astonishing multi-octave range and glorious golden vocal tone. Anna Hale's sparkling choreography is intelligently pared back for a small playing space but gets to really let rip in a sensational tap section that works both as traditional musical theatre homage, and as smart storytelling as Channing tries to discredit Evan to the school's Drama teacher in a full-on piece of glitzy showbiz manipulation. It brings the house down.

The script falters somewhat when we find out exactly what Channing did to Evan, thereby precipitating his own descent into Hell. It's really horrible and, despite the hardworking brilliance of the central performance, brings too sharp a gear change to what is essentially a barbed lark of a show. It succeeds in setting up a strangely chilling final moment, memorably staged and played, but the writing lacks the gravitas to stop it all becoming a bit ponderous. The constant cattiness can wear a little thin also.

In all honesty, if relentless musical theatre references and high camp get on your nerves, then you may want to knock at least one star off this four-star rating. For everybody else though, but especially those who know their Rosh Hashanah from their Shoshana Bean (hey, don't come for me, this is direct from the show), DIVA: Live From Hell! remains worth a trip to Battersea, for the bold theatricality and the bravura Mr Bayer.


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