Review: Ghost Quartet (Boulevard Theatre)

Dave Malloy’s musical has its London premiere

Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon
Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon
© Marc Brenner

The opening of a new theatre in the centre of London has to warm the heart – and the Boulevard Theatre, on the site of the old Raymond's Revue Bar, is a cause for celebration. In place of the gaudy trappings of Paul Raymond's adult entertainment, there's a sophisticated, welcoming modern theatre, full of atmosphere.

There is a chic pink-walled restaurant with cocktails and on-trend (and quite delicious) food (mainly plant-based), there are comfy seats and plenty of legroom in the auditorium, and there is the capacity to set the space up in almost any configuration. It feels as if it could be a valuable addition to the theatre landscape.

Its opening show is played in the round to 141 people and is something of an adventure. I saw Dave Malloy's chamber musical in Edinburgh and much liked it for its oddity and its ambition. It is essentially a series of interlinked ghost stories, sung in the shape of a double album, by four singer/musicians who play a wide range of instruments, from cello to triangle to harp, and who announce each track as they perform it. They also comment on the strangeness of the tale, in a modern and meta manner. "Don't worry you're in a circular story," says the spooky owner of a camera shop to Rose, who may or may not be a ghost.

There are, we are told quite early, "1001 stories and every one of them a lie". There are certainly four: we meet Scheherazade and her sister, we meet the sisters Pearl and Rose who are battling for the attention of an astronomer who lives in a tree, we encounter – in a direct nod to Edgar Allan Poe – grieving parents mourning their lost child, and we hear about an accident in which a young girl, playing a video game, falls beneath a train.

Whether all this makes any sense, I am still not sure. I'm also not sure it matters. Ghost Quartet's appeal lies in the hokey weirdness of its story-telling, its sense of bringing people together to listen to tales of ghosts and ghouls (one of the best songs is called "Any Kind of Dead Person") and to lean in to some appealing songs.

The production, now directed by Bill Buckhurst (of Sweeney Todd-in-a-pie-shop fame) and with lighting effects by Emma Chapman, has been cleaned up and made more sophisticated for its London debut. I liked Simon Kenny's cluttered set, with its piled-up suitcases making a stage, but some of the effects now seem too obviously spooky – and the singers were over-amplified. There's also a lot more audience participation, including the offer of free whiskey which may be a bonus or not, according to your taste.

What roots the show, and makes it an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, is the quality of the singing, and the personalities of the cast, with Zubin Varla's genial piano player, Carly Bawden's vivacious and detailed grasp on her many roles, Maimuna Memon's roaring alto and Niccolo Curradi's inventive cello player all playing their part in an offbeat but gripping entertainment.