Theatre review: Dark Carnival, Tramway, Glasgow

Dark Carnival at The Tramway, Glasgow
Dark Carnival at The Tramway, Glasgow
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Death is a cabaret, says singer-songwriter Biff Smith in his introduction to this rare and marvellous new collaboration between his band A New International, Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point, and the Citizens Theatre at the Tramway; and with cliff-edges everywhere, and the whole future of life on Earth hanging by a thread, there’s certainly a feeling around that it’s high time to start viewing death with less horror, and more wit and glamour.

Dark Carnival, Tramway, Glasgow ****

Set in an ordinary Scottish cemetery off a road called Dickson’s Brae, The Dark Carnival is a 100-minute musical poem – written by Matthew Lenton in rhyming verse with the softness and cruelty of nursery rhyme, and featuring 12 terrific Biff Smith songs delivered live by an eight-strong New International – in which the dead, lurking beneath the ground in their mouldering coffins, are found to be fully as alive as the living, and quite a bit more fun.

So there’s Mrs Eugenia Mark, a superb Ann Louise Ross; her statue adorns the entrance to the park, and she presides over a substantial supply of post-mortem whisky. There’s Major Toast, in whose honour his family has planted a large tree; there’s young John, who died in 1957 after being arrested for “gross indecency”. After a sad funeral above, there’s also a little girl called Annie, a kind of Greta Thunberg of the dead, full of passion and compassion. And up beyond the living, there are the angels, driven to drink and despair by an outbreak of rip-off free-market ideology in heaven, and therefore unwilling to admit any more refugees from the worlds below.

All of which arguably amounts to too much narrative explanation and not enough implacable darkness, in a show called The Dark Carnival; in that sense, Smith’s romantic, poetic and often blackly humorous songs, inflected by the whole cabaret culture of 20th century Europe, perhaps capture the carnival mood even more fully than Lenton’s text. Yet with Kenneth MacLeod’s multi-layered set conjuring up all kinds of theatrical magic, the whole scene stunningly lit by Simon Wilkinson, the acting company led by Elicia Daly’s Narrator delivering the story with perfect commitment, and Smith and his black-clad band singing and playing for dear death, it’s hard to do anything other than sit back and revel in this strange and wonderful entertainment for the moment we live in; and for all those who understand how human beings can always create songs and stories, wit and beauty, even in extremis. - Joyce McMillan

Tramway, Glasgow, until 2 March; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-9 March; Dundee Rep, 13-16 March.