sat 20/07/2024

Death Takes A Holiday, Charing Cross Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Death Takes A Holiday, Charing Cross Theatre

Death Takes A Holiday, Charing Cross Theatre

The Grim Reaper seeks the meaning of life in this lush but ludicrous musical

Death and the Maiden: Chris Peluso's Reaper romances Zoe Doano's GraziaScott Rylander

“I’m Death.” “And you’re on holiday?” Well, there’s really no way to disguise the preposterousness of this musical’s premise, nor to reconcile its winking humour and self-serious grand romance. Thus, Thom Southerland’s London premiere wisely diverts attention to its seductive qualities as a stylish period piece – come for the flappers, champers, saucy maids and misty Italian arches.

Alberto Casella’s 1924 play, adapted into a 2011 chamber musical by Maury Yeston, Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, is perhaps best known in another incarnation: the interminable 1998 Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins film Meet Joe Black, which – appropriately enough – made one long for the sweet embrace of death. The stage show likewise meanders, slowed by its scattershot ensemble writing and clunky, overly descriptive book and lyrics, but Yeston’s lush, swooning score makes the dawdling bearable; particularly delightful are a heartfelt declaration of love, a rousing second-act chorus opener, and a yearning all-girl trio.

Death Takes A Holiday, Charing Cross TheatreSo – that plot. While roaming through Twenties Italy, Death (Chris Peluso, pictured above with Zoe Doano) decides to spare the impetuous beauty Grazia Lamberti, who foolishly celebrates her engagement by leaning out of a fast-moving car. Inspired to understand life, and why its ending is so feared, Death takes a weekend off, appearing at the Lambertis' sumptuous home in the guise of a Russian prince and swearing Grazia's father to secrecy on pain of, er, death – meaning the poor Duke, or rather the actor playing him, is stuck clock-watching and growling gnomic warnings.

Grazia, of course, is beguiled by this new arrival, because no girl can resist the ubiquitous tall, dark and handsome stranger – even if he’s literally Death. Yet their star-crossed romance lacks tension, too conventional in presentation and stymied by woolly stakes and a cop-out climax, even if there's some enjoyably dopey comedy mined from Death’s innocent, alien unfamiliarity with human customs; he’s eager to sample everything from breakfast eggs to a parade of obliging misses.

Chris Peluso (who plays the role until 11 February) has quite the challenge with solemn dialogue that can’t help but read as camp – carrying over into some Lloyd Webber-esque moody popera ballads. The existential exploration is a tad intense first-year philosophy student, but it's just about salvaged by Peluso’s magnetic stage presence and superbly controlled vocals.

Death Takes A Holiday, Charing Cross TheatreZoe Doano’s Grazia is decently sung but too mannered (an excess of middle-distance staring and skirt-clutching), and the pair are more convincing as friendly duet partners than till-death-us-do-part lovers. Frequently, the more engaging material is eddying around them, from a bittersweet twilight affair – touchingly portrayed by Gay Soper and Anthony Cable (pictured above by Annabel Vere) – to unrequited love and a deep well of grief and trauma.

Death remembers four years of horrific slaughter; the Lamberti family, who lost their aviator son during the Great War, still live in its shadow. Samuel Thomas is excellent as survivor Major Eric Fenton, who recalls pilots locked in a fatal dance, and Kathryn Akin delicately handles a mother’s agonised lament. The spectre of Trump lends chilling power to the description of humanity plunging into ruinous conflict, again and again.

Southerland’s production is typically fleet, if overbearing with the dry ice (it’s as foggy in the theatre as out), while Morgan Large provides a liminal Gothic setting – creeping ivy and crumbling stone walls – and Jonathan Lipman delicious Roaring Twenties attire. Larry Hochman’s rich orchestrations are handsomely delivered by a 10-piece band, led by Dean Austin. All pleasant enough, but for a piece concerned with our reason for being, it lacks a truly compelling life force.

@mkmswain

The spectre of Trump lends chilling power to the description of humanity plunging into ruinous conflict

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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