Reviewed – 11th September 2018
“a highly impactful, beautifully-crafted musical”
It is the last moments of 1937 in Soviet Azerbaijan and the clocks have stopped. The neighbour has just been taken away but Man (Colin Burnicle) works for the Party and has just received protection. Him and Woman (Norma Butikofer) are ready to open their black market champagne when they hear a knock on the door. Someone has a quota to fill. And he isn’t from the NKVD.
Based on the play ‘Citizens of Hell’ by one of Azerbaijan’s leading literary voices, Elchin, Timothy Knapman (book and lyrics) and Laurence Mark Wythe (music and lyrics) have created a highly impactful, beautifully-crafted musical. What are people prepared to do to survive, it asks, and how many lies are people prepared to tell those closest to them? As the couple are forced to face what they have each done, a harsh light is shone on this culture of fear and the limits that it pushes people to.
The fantastic actor-musician ensemble, dusted in white, edge the space, a perpetual haunting presence as they revolve between victims of the purges, colleagues and friends. Leon Scott’s visitor is enthralling onstage. He has an infectious presence and an irresistible charm, that feels wonderfully dichotomous against the chaos and confusion he leaves in his wake. Burnicle and Butikofer as the couple cracking beneath the pressure of their revelations, deliver nuanced and convincing performances, as the characters are pushed to their extremes.
Elliot Squire’s set raises their apartment just slightly, a traditional setting complete with a lounge area and dining table. The edges of this space are illuminated, a contemporary finish that creates a thin boundary between the ever-present ensemble and the central set. Stalin’s image hangs large and high above the stage.
It’s an unusual topic for a musical but one that translates surprisingly well. The score meanders between eerie musical moments lead by the ensemble, playful musical comedy segments, and more moving ballads from the couple. There is a lovely simplicity within the score that feels necessary to both the intimacy of the narrative and the size of the space. It is also delivered by a highly competent group of vocalists and musicians.
Moving us with ease between thriller, comedy and drama, this is a complex, well-crafted new musical, delivered by excellent performances, under the strong direction of Kate Golledge.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
Union Theatre until 29th September