Sunday, 29 January 2017

REVIEW: Death Takes a Holiday at Charing Cross Theatre

It's the year 1922, a wealthy family is driving home after celebrating the engagement of Grazia (Zoë Doano) and Corrado (Ashley Stillburn) when, due to excessive speed, the young bride-to-be is thrown out the car. Seconds before the crash, we see her standing on the seat in a black lace dress of gothic flavour, defying the wind with her arms outstretched and singing the uplifting 'In the middle of Your Life' with the rest of the company. Astonishingly, she survives the accident unscathed, landing safely in the arms of a nameless man dressed in black. Her carefree attitude has unwittingly seduced Death (Chris Peluso) and he decides to take a weekend off to spend it with Grazia at the family's villa in northern Italy. Assuming the human features of prince Nikolai Sirki from Minsk, Death strives to grasp the meaning of love and will soon find out that this feeling is even stronger that death itself.

Don’t expect an extravagant production with spectacular choreographies though. Described by its author Maury Yeston as 'a chamber piece', it is intimate and relatively low key. The costumes agree with the sumptuous fashion of the early 1920s and the gothic reference returns in Morgan Large's design of Villa Felicita, where the stone cold walls covered in creeping ivy recall the ruins celebrated by the landscape painters of the early gothic revival.

Based on a play written by Alberto Cassella after the end of WW1, 'Death Takes a Holiday' is a beautifully dark-humoured metaphor of the relationship between human beings and death. Inevitably contemplating the drama of a decade that claimed over sixty million victims, the songs 'Roberto's Eyes' and 'Losing Roberto' refer directly to the tragic losses experienced during the war, whereas the happy tune 'Sirki's Entrance' plays down the subject just before the spine-tingling 'Death Is in the House'. In the simplified language of theatre, a general metaphysical reflection about the importance of life is translated into a personal turmoil and its conclusion is predictable but evocative.

Zoë Doano has a gracious and powerful presence on stage, whereas Chris
Peluso delivers the credible impersonation of a clumsy gentleman whose normal interaction with people is limited to a fatal last instant. Kathryn Akin is the divine Duchess Stephanie Lamberti and Mark Inscoe, as the Duke Vittorio Lamberti, offers stability to the piece. Unsung hero of the show is James Gant, as the servant Fidele, who'll be covering the principal role of Death from 13th February.

'Death Takes a Holiday' is a thoughtful and resonant musical that combines neo-gothic imagery with one of the biggest topics of existentialism, confirming Yeston's penchant for socially engaged musicals and devotion to the representation of humankind.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★★
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