Hotel For Criminals
New Wimbledon Studio
20 October 2016
From the very first moment, as you climb the stairs at the New Wimbledon Studio and are assaulted by the ear-splitting ambient ‘overture’ – it sounds like a mixture of Varese and Xenakis, but is in fact the ‘sound’ created by the movement of the planetoid Pluto – repeated over and over again, the clear purpose of this so-called ‘musical’ would seem to be to intimidate and menace. Well, since Stephen Sondheim says that the ‘purpose’ of ‘Sweeney Todd’ is to scare people and that it hasn’t got any purpose than that, then this would appear to be as good an aim as any. So you pick up your programme – a genuine Playbill – and go into the Studio. There, the seething, aggressive wash of music is more insistent than ever, and the whole space, lit in harsh white light, attacks your visual sense with its punchy rectilinear black-and-white dazzle-effect design. Adding to the sense of confrontation and threat, an emergency barrier separates the stage from the seating, and above it hangs a triptych of Perspex panels, upon which are scrawled the words of the title of the show. The same crudely enlarged scribbles adorn the back and sides of the performance space. An air of brutal solemnity prevails. A strangely attired, almost mummified character is already on stage, blindly scribbling in a notebook. Then, one by one, characters in late bel-epoque costumes inch, automaton-like into view, and lurch into strangely purposeless, mechanically imitative movements, or assume clumsy, awkward poses, their faces hidden behind glossy plastic masks, or painted with flat, grotesque make-up. We appear to have stumbled across a nihilistic circus. And that – my dear readers – is what we are in for.
Once the public has assembled (I don’t think ‘settled’ would be the right word, in this deeply strange and unsettling atmosphere), the lights fade down (as they will do through the show, over and again, at exactly the same speed, like the early ‘dissolves’ of silent cinematography). Then, as the crashingly modernistic orchestral melismas dissipate for the last time, a ghastly klaxon sounds, and then we hear a human, but none too reassuring, voice: this is the narrator, and we will hear from him, and the klaxon, again. And again. He tells us, in lugubrious, almost salaciously lingering tones, that what we are about to witness is based on the series of popular filmed detective stories set in pre-Great War Paris, featuring the extraordinary Inspector Judex (he who affects to appear in a suit of black feathers, with the head and scary beak of a bird, and is an implacable dispenser of justice to all evil-doers – swift and unswerving). This character and a number of others in this show are known to British audiences – if at all – from the sound and colour remakes made in the 1960s: ‘Judex’ and ‘Fantomas’.
The next 75-minutes take us through one particular adventure, depicted via a succession (rather than sequence) of non-fluidly integrated scenes, some haiku brief, some more elaborate, where the grotesque personages of this world – all more or less guests or staff at the eponymous hostelry – stiltedly move through the rudiments of a ‘plot’ apparently involving the entrapment of the innocent by a gang of thugs. However, lucid delivery of narrative is emphatically not what this style of theatre is about. Wanderlust Productions, who are building a devoted and passionately committed audience with their wildly divergent and intellectually rigorous presentations (they were last seen at this address propounding of view of Chekov as a writer of uproarious 1970s sit-com), are not inviting you to hear the telling of a tale. As each abrupt scene freezes into a melodramatic ‘tableau’, and as each slow dissolve bleeds the light from the image before us, that klaxon bellows again in the ensuing darkness, and we switch into the next set-up. (Fiona Mountford is going to love this!)
The American Richard Foreman is the dramatic creator of this work: he writes the book, and composes the lyrics to the stylistically restless musical palette of Stanley Silverman’s cosmopolitan modernist score; together they fashion a baker’s dozen of numbers that admonish the narrative terrain of these simplistic characters. Their score is unlike any other in town right now, except – saliently – for ‘Adding Machine’ at The Finborough. Both music and lyrics come out of the avant-garde, out of the long-haired, ‘serious’ and yet populist art of Left Bank intellectuals, progressive ‘salons’, bohemian sophisticates and artistic seditionaries. The ‘West End’ it ain’t, but the music is immensely more tuneful and memorable than the great majority of scores currently to be heard in the commercial scene. In styles that hop, skip, and jump from Satie, to Lully, via Offenbach and Chabrier, nodding towards the catalogues of Mistinguett and Piaf, drawing in Auric, Weill, Stravinsky, Honegger, and countless others; with marches, one-steps and two-steps, gallops and baroque chorales. But always with a disciplined economy and lightness of touch. The band, led by Kieran Stallard, comprises Nathan Harding, Caroline Scott, Becky Hughes, Connor Smith, Nic Jones, and plays with meticulous care the never simplistic fare.
Stanley Silverman appeared from the States in order to grace the press night – the work’s British premiere. A lissom 78, he cuts an elegantly patrician figure: tall, with fine grey hair, aquiline features, and an astutely intellectual detachment from everything around him. His CV includes collaborating with Anthony Burgess, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols, and writing the music for Arthur Miller’s only musical, ‘Up From Paradise’ (staged by this company not so long ago), whose other premieres include the also recently produced ‘Dr Selavy’s Magic Theater’. He has had work performed by Pierre Boulez and Michael Tilson Thomas, James Taylor and Sting, and has also worked with Paul Simon, Joseph Papp and many more. That such a heavyweight should be having his work showcased by such a (still) small company in a fringe studio says a lot about him and a lot about the venue and its visitors.
Wanderlust’s cast are the equal of all the work’s ‘tricky’ challenges, sailing through its surprising twists and turns with devil-may-care aplomb: the lush-voiced Niccolo Curradi as the manipulator Fantomas; the terrific arrival from the USA of Kate Baxter as the femme fatale par excellence, the vampiress Irma Vep (when not incognito as a French maid), with spectacular vocal ability; the silver-voiced lyric tenor, Alistair Frederick (with the stratospheric top register), as the possibly, or possibly not imprisoned journalist, Max; the briskly agitated coloratura soprano Madelaine Jennings as the not-as-innocent-as-she-paints-herself Helene; and the goons of Ben Rawlings (Julot), Nick Brittain (Gaston), Louis Rayneau (Duchamp), and the wonderfully grand-Guignol Tom Whalley (Lacloche). But who is Judex? The Playbill is blacked out where his details appear! His mystery endures.
What we don’t know, however, is that this story is just the first act of a much larger narrative, where Fantomas and Irma Vep continue their campaign of rough-justice, while pursued by the intrepid – and eerily indestructible – Judex. The sequel takes the action to the Americas, broadening out its scope and requiring grander resources to stage. Let’s hope we don’t have too long to wait before seeing it.
There is an evidently able production team of Assistant Producer, Caroline Fox, Casting Assistant, Rob Cook, and Production Assistant, Robert Wainman. But the hero of the hour here is surely the astonishingly energetic and decisive, dedicated and wildly imaginative Patrick Kennedy. Producer, director, designer, choreographer (and I’ll wager lighting and sound designer, too), this man can – and does – do practically everything. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude – and admiration – that in his spare time from running a responsible career at Dewynter’s, his lavishes his efforts upon bringing together and putting onto our London stage work of such originality, freshness and bizarre charm as this. Who will take him on and give him a bigger budget and more advertising? He thoroughly deserves it.
Runs until 29 October 2016