White Rose Theatre – who rose to a certain prominence thanks to their sparky and intelligent re-telling of Tony Blair’s time in government and beyond in Tony! The Blair Musical and Tony of Arabia – do not like to do things by halves.
Their current project, Lost Soul Music, not only comprises six hours worth of material, but the programme boldly states that “Lost Soul Music is our attempt to save the musical” – its reputation, rather than the genre itself, which box office stats will attest doesn’t really need saving.
So, flashy staging and huge casts are here eschewed for something altogether more intimate and quiet – simply plays with songs.
The opening night featured two of the six stories in the cycle – none of which, we’re told, feature anything approaching a happy ending, but which all deal with the battle for a character’s soul.
The Devil You Know follows Helen, truly a tortured soul who believes that she has always done the right thing, despite having been cursed by the demons carved into the bed in which she was born. If Helen sounds slightly unhinged – she is. She is haunted by the physical manifestations of her own inner demons – incongruously named Morris and Maude – and as she attempts to tell her story of woe, through words and bluesy song, her anger at never having been recognised for having good intentions becomes increasingly apparent, her stoic exterior occasionally breaking to reveal fury, regret and deep-seated jealousy. Kristin Atherton has a fittingly soulful voice, but it is her portrayal of a woman on the edge, a "crazy lady" as Morris and Maude call her, that is more impressive.
Helen is too introspective and moody to provide much comedy, but this does come from both of the demons. Morris, played by Alex Forsythe, is a louche, New Romantic kind of demon, the sort you could easily be seduced by, while Maude, played by the very funny Roxanna Klimaszewska, is reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie – usually playful but occasionally rather terrifying. All three though - while fine performances - are overshadowed by moments of brilliance in the script; Helen’s visceral description of a spring in that bedstead tearing the flesh of her brother’s foot, or sawing off those devils’ heads in rage, will not be quickly forgotten.
And it is writer Chris Bush’s truly remarkable way with words which also lifts single-hander Simon Says. James Duckworth, while the lead in the Tony musicals, does not have the strongest voice and as such the most probably isn’t made of the music hall, Flanders and Swann-style songs which punctuate his monologue. But he has one fantastic script to deliver, and he delivers it with such aplomb.
As Thomas J Malloy – waistcoat, Italian shoes, pocketwatch – he is truly a man out of time; he exists in the 21st century but his aversion to jeans and Yates’s wine-bars means he does not exactly thrive there. But it does mean that his speech is fabulously Wildean, never using a single syllable word where a long, preferably French-rooted one will do, as if he has just emerged from a light Sheridan comedy. His is a 'careful what you wish for' tale, but the middling storyline comes a distant second to the delightfully histrionic descriptions of 'his beloved.'
There is something genuinely odd about both the concept of these six stories in general and the tone in which they are delivered – especially The Devil You Know which flips a little ungainly between throwaway comic lines and deep tragedy – and that can leave you more than a little uncomfortable, unsure how to react. But the love of language evident in both scripts is appealing and the turn of phrase genuinely impressive – the devil may have all the best tunes, but if these two stories are anything to go by, Lost Soul Music’s worth lies in its wonderful words.