DIVA: LIVE FROM HELL! at the The Turbine Theatre
“Brilliantly performed by Luke Bayer who is having a devilishly good time”
In Dante Alighieri’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, the Underworld is divided into nine ‘circles’ in which sinners were punished in relation to their crimes. The treacherous and fraudulent would find themselves in circles eight or nine, for example. The Seventh Circle was reserved for the sins of violence. This is where we find Desmond Channing, a rather deranged but endearing teenager who is forced into an eternal residency at Hell’s hottest nightclub to retell his tale, night after night. His life was short and his descent into madness rapid. Desmond’s fearless craving for the limelight swiftly morphs into the unthinking terror of a rabbit in the headlights.
The insanely talented Luke Bayer croons through the overture by way of introducing us to the Seventh Circle Cabaret Bar. Bayer is so completely at home you wonder what sins he’s hiding up his sleeves, but a cheeky wink betrays an innocent nod to the fourth wall. This is fantasy, it is fun, and Bayer is relishing every minute. His charm is as infectious as his voice is gorgeous.
We are taken back to the Florida high school where Desmond was president of the ‘Ronald Reagan Drama Club’. He is musical theatre personified. Bayer unselfconsciously and candidly celebrates all the faults and foibles of this particular character (Nora Brigid Monahan’s script is wickedly insightful) as he struts and frets. He is a bit of a paradox; he’s diffident but oh, such a diva! He thinks he’s the king, but he’s such a drama queen. He’s in love with the sexiest girl in the class, but it is clear his interests lie elsewhere. Into his confused life and mind saunters Evan Harris, the cool kid from New York City. Evan steals his girl, his role in the school’s musical, his presidency and ultimately his sanity.
Bayer moves seamlessly between the characters, evoking each with an individualism that relies purely on expression and tone. He pours irony over Evan’s swagger, and charm over the endearing ‘best friend’ Allie Hewitt – the voice of reason; while his Principal Dallas has a playful mix of officiousness and pseudo-sympathy. He not only plays them, but sings them too. The score focuses on Desmond, but the bit parts also have their moments at the microphone. “Strong” is a wonderful number which has Bayer interacting with the house band and teasing the ‘earnest’ singer-songwriter paragon. “The Big Time” reveals another threat in Bayer’s skill set as he nimbly tap dances across the floor. Equally nimble is his hold on the songs, which ooze ‘joie de vivre’. Alexander Sage Oyen’s music and lyrics don’t stray too far from the catchy, pop genre but manage to balance perfectly the upbeat with the ballads, and the anger with the melancholy. It is refreshing, also, to see a show that actively acknowledges the onstage musicians; a skilful trio made up of musical director Debbi Clarke on keys, with Jonnie Grant on drums and Ben Uden on guitar and bass.
Just when we’re wallowing in the whimsical, offbeat rhythms of the night we are given a glimpse of the darker side, and the real reason Desmond is confined to his place in the Inferno. A difficult moment to stage in a space such as the Turbine Theatre, but director Joe McNeice pulls it off, with Alistair Lindsay’s deceptively simple lighting. We are back in Hell, where we started. Desmond has earned his diva title.
Clever, entertaining and deliciously camp, “Diva – Live from Hell” is increasingly uplifting the further it descends into the depths. Brilliantly performed by Luke Bayer who is having a devilishly good time. And so are the audience. The only danger is we might start believing that Hell is so much fun, we’ll all want to become sinners!
Reviewed on 19th August 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Harry Elletson
Previously reviewed at this venue: