Whisper House continues at The Other Palace, London until 27 May.
Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩
For its second major staging in its new rebranded guise as the home for new musical writing, The Other Palace has chosen curiously. Whisper House is a 2009 piece with music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik, whose Spring Awakening and, to a lesser extent, American Psycho marked him out as a composer of critically acclaimed rock musicals that also appealed to audiences.
So an eight-year-old piece stretches the concept of ‘new musical theatre writing’ a little. Like its predecessor in the space, Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, ‘new’ in this instance means ‘new to London’, which is not quite the same thing.
But unlike The Wild Party, which had rambunctious performances and delightfully choreographed sequences to compensate for its other flaws, Whisper House is a sombre piece that often feels too wrapped up in what it falsely imagines is its own cleverness.
The show’s central story (devised by Sheik with book writer and co-lyricist Kyle Jarrow and co-conceived by Keith Powell) is nominally original, not being based on any previous source material.
It is derivatively familiar, though. Its setting of a troubled child being housed, due to circumstances, with an unfamiliar curmudgeonly relative fuels many a children’s story, from Heidi and Pollyanna to the Lemony Snicket books.
The setting is at least striking: Dianne Pilkington’s Aunt Lily is a lighthouse keeper in a remote part of Maine, the circular nature of the building inspiring Andrew Riley’s concentric set design.
Sheik and Jarrow add a further layer by setting the piece in the early days of America’s involvement in the Second World War, where post-Pearl Harbor suspicion led to Japanese-Americans being forcibly relocated to internment camps.
Here, Lily’s handyman Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh) faces imprisonment by Simon Lipkin’s local sheriff, and suspicion from Lily’s truculent young nephew Christopher (Fisher Costello-Rose in a role shared with Stanley Jarvis).
If this were all there was to Whisper House’s story, there would be scope for an interesting chamber piece, with wartime fears and suspicion playing out amongst a small cast in ways that could feel very contemporary, and with each character using musical theatre’s unique abilities to reveal inner turmoil and conflict through song.
If only. Instead, any semblance of depth or involvement is discarded in favour of a further layer on top of this potential interest, with two ghosts, Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry, haunting the lighthouse and narrating events. If you’re not sure that they are ghosts, and that they are narrating events, do not worry: they will tell you. A lot.
Bailey and Perry’s ghosts deliver nearly all of the musical’s songs, with the other characters only occasionally joining in. And while there are occasional interesting melodies, most notably the narrative shanty ‘Tale of Solomon Snell’, Sheik’s music is so interested in trying to create a sense of mystery, and then telling you that it is creating a sense of mystery, that it forgets to allow the play to do that for itself.
Even without the ghosts providing such imbalance, there is a sense that Sheik and Jarrow’s handling of the central story does not serve the characters well.
Christopher’s apparent discovery of Yasuhiro’s suspicious behaviour, which could corroborate the sheriff’s assertions about the dangers of letting the man remain free, are explained away within seconds, reducing the young child’s suspicions to an act of petulant racism.
And traces of a romantic triangle exist largely because of Pilkington, Goh and Lipkin’s efforts to eke some crumbs of personality out of their shakily written characters.
As the show draws to a close, the rapprochement between Lily and her nephew shows a sense of emotional engagement that is largely missing from the rest of the piece. But that moment is as unsatisfying as it is fleeting, Sheik instead preferring to rush to a conclusion so his ghosts can perform an encore about how great it is that ghosts have been narrating a rock musical.
If one were to take any one element of Whisper House, one might believe it came from a cohesive, intriguing musical concept. But when viewed as a whole, it feels as if the accomplished band (under the musical direction of Daniel A Weiss) and cast should have been deployed on some genuinely new musical theatre, instead of a revival of a piece best left undisturbed.