Midnight – A New Musical received a workshop presentation at St James Studio, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
The St James Studio has a dangerous air about it today. We are taking our seats for the world premiere workshop performance of Midnight, a new thriller musical set in Azerbaijan during the Great Terror of 1937, as the clock ticks toward midnight on New Year’s Eve, and every family dreads the arrival of the Secret Police. Stalin glares down at us with suspicion from his portrait, which looms over the entire performance, and as the lights go down and the first chords sound, there is a palpable tension in the ether.
Based on the 2007 play Citizens of Hell by the inimitable Azerbaijani author Elchin, Timothy Knapman and Laurence Mark Wythe of Aloff Theatre have done an exceptional job of adapting the concept into a musical format.
The piece is a three-hander, peering into the living room of a young couple visited by a mysterious NKVD officer, who dredges up all their darkest fears and revelations (think An Inspector Calls, but up the stakes with some torture and death).
Nicolas Colicos plays the visitor with a terrifying charismatic fervour, and some grand rumbling vocals reminiscent of Tommy Körberg or Philip Quast – an absolute joy to watch. His performance gives wings to the text, and though script and acting may veer a little into the over-indulgent at times, Matthew Gould’s firm and clever direction, even in this concert-style performance, keeps the energy well reigned in where it needs to be.
Even in a studio theatre, with a minimal cast, there is a sense of grandeur and purpose to the score. The world outside our claustrophobic living room setting is crystal clear in all its danger. The music is subversive, staying light throughout the darkest moments (a paradoxically graphic ‘Secret Policeman’s Lament’ keeps us wholly uncomfortable in our mirth), and hitting us with unexpected gravitas during the beautifully reflective ‘Papa’, sung with a perfectly understated passion by Rebecca Trehearn, who plays ‘Woman’. The themes and motifs wind their way subtly into the subconscious, with some clever lyrical patterns, sometimes in danger of sacrificing subtlety for rhyme, but often aggressively smart.
The small ensemble is highly effective in supporting the narrative, and Kiara Jay’s tremulous moment as a torture victim with ‘Let Me Sleep’ is a standout heartbreaker. This is one of the only moments throughout that the dark comedy is not allowed to penetrate, and it works well. I look forward to watching the ensemble in their full actor-musician capacity – the piano accompaniment serves the score well but it has exciting potential for a speakeasy of jazzy arrangements.
For a piece involving unholy powers, it chooses for better or worse to remain quiet on religious doctrine, instead examining the fear and dread of the mortal higher power – though this is not to its detriment. It feels as though the whole piece exists outside of specific time and space, repeating itself again and again.
This is a musical full of twists and turns, where nobody is above judgement. It might have been interesting to see a little more power play between our characters, and indeed between our visitor and his hosts – slightly dampened down from the original text are the strong sexual undertones – though it will be interesting to see what directions open up once the actors are able to move freely.
The chemistry between the entire cast is electric. This is an exciting and edgy musical from a company building a great track record for creating vibrant adaptations of classic world texts and it is to be hoped that it goes on to get the development it deserves.