“a vibrant collage of the new and old, created by enchanting layered sound and stories that ignite the imagination”
Islander: A New Musical, which has a short run at the Southwark Playhouse this month, having transferred from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is a new Scottish folktale about a breakaway island which drifts across oceans, following (or attending) the whales of the sea.
Eilidh (Bethany Tennick) cares for her jokey gran on the remote Scottish Island of Kinnen. While she struggles with a personal resentment towards her mother who left her to find work on the mainland, there is disquiet spreading across the island. Habitual concerns of a gnome gone missing and who is going to the local dance, are overshadowed. There will be a vote: sacrifice their home and head to the mainland or stay and struggle with the dearth of public services and jobs. Troubled times bring unusual events: Eilidh discovers a beached whale and then a mysterious washed-up girl called Arran whose tales of her mythical land, hidden in the mist, test Eilidh’s faith and help her find her way.
The story, written by Stewart Melton with lyrics by Finn Anderson is exquisite. With personification and repetition, the land becomes alive with “angry clouds” and its “earth-moving roar” creating a folkloric flavour. The power of the land and sea accrues with blue and turquoise lighting (Simon Wilkinson) which occasionally washes over the stage and the simple earth coloured costumes of the two-person cast. Harsher red and white lighting herald modern machinery, such as when we tune in to the radio, or tense human relationships such as the fast-paced dialogue between mother and daughter, which sees the magic surrender to harsh reality. Through this plainer lens, we realise how easy it is to lose faith in the mysterious.
Bethany Tennick plays a heart-warming Eilidh as well as a host of other characters, along with Kirsty Findlay, whose roles include Arran, who she plays with a beautiful innocence, and mischievous gran with her strong local accent. The two perform a perfect medley of synchronised movement and shared dialogue, conceived and directed by Amy Draper, which makes for a rich performance about friendship. Mid-song, a brief smile passes between the two revealing their shared enjoyment of performing this charming piece. It is rare but heart-warming to see a self-referential moment like this on stage.
The highlight of the performance are the soundscapes, created by two voices and loop-pedals to imbue a mystic atmosphere and create beautiful harmonies in the musical score as well as natural sounds. The set is somewhat lacking but instead the space is filled with a charged energy and the audience is completely transported. One of my favourite soundscapes is the tapping of fingernails on the microphone, creating a patter of rain on the run-down school roof.
Islander: A New Musical is a vibrant collage of the new and old, created by enchanting layered sound and stories that ignite the imagination: a re-imagined myth with undertones of current issues.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was just beginning his career as one of Russia’s most promising composers when he was struck with crippling depression. For three years he was unable to write music and eventually began seeing a hypnotherapist to overcome his creative block. Dave Malloy’s Preludes, originally produced off-Broadway in 2015, reimagines these years. Filled with Rachmaninoff’s music, and framed as a series of hypnotherapy sessions, the story follows the young musician’s journey back from the brink. Alex Sutton directs the London premier.
Described as “a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff”, the show fits the bill. It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal. A blend of present and past, the world is a dreamlike confusion of modern-day New York City and 1890s Moscow. Rach and his friends take the subway to meet Tolstoy, and he must ask permission from the Czar to marry. Malloy reinforces this alternate universe with modern adaptations of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. The grand piano on stage is flanked by two keyboards (Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant).
The hybrid music is a successful experiment. Although Malloy’s lyrics can feel simple and uninspired at times, the cast’s strong vocal performances are a treat. Georgia Louise stands out in particular, and Norton James and Rebecca Caine’s operatic voices nicely contribute to the show’s clash between modern musical and nineteenth century opera.
Preludes’ setting is impossibly tricky: it’s Russia and America; 2019 and late 1890s; it mostly takes place inside a character’s mind. But set and costume designer Rebecca Brower has risen to the challenge. Rach (Keith Ramsay) wears a long overcoat, black combat boots, and eyeliner. He has the double-headed eagle insignia of the Russian Empire tattooed on his back. Natalya (Georgia Louise) wears a blouse, a long taffeta skirt, and Superga trainers. Brower’s set frames the stage in concentric rectangular shapes which light up with the music, invoking an EDM concert as well as a trance-inducing illusion: a canny reminder that the scenes are figments of a hypnotised mind – that we should be prepared for the distorted and the unreal. It all comes together to create an uneasy yet appealing aesthetic.
Like Rach’s psyche, the show divides the artist in two: there’s the tortured young man (Ramsay), and his music (Tom Noyes). Cleverly, the two manifestations occasionally acknowledge or disrupt each other. Ramsay is ideal as the troubled genius. His hunched shoulders and wide eyes give him a haunted air. He’s the sensitive, uncertain artist, wounded by the world, and at the same time the defiant punk Malloy believes the composer was at heart – deliberately wanting his music to upset his teachers, to blow the walls off tradition with his big, loud, chaotic scores. Noyes is at the piano throughout, and his performance is a delight. Steven Serlin brings much of the comedy with his characters (Chekov, Tolstoy, the Czar). He plays nicely off Ramsay’s insecurity and gloominess.
While Preludes is smart, imaginative, and greatly enjoyable, there are moments where it falters. The beginning takes a while to get going. The wedding scene, which begins compelling and funny with Serlin’s Czar, runs on and becomes saccharine with discussion of where God can be found. The painfully long guided hypnotism near the end will test your patience.
But as a whole, the show’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Inventive and enticingly strange, Preludes is a fantastical celebration of music. It’s playful and irreverent with a deep love of its subject at its heart. Malloy and Sutton seem to be arguing Rachmaninoff would have appreciated the audacity. They might be right.