Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The Dark Carnival is all about death. If that sounds a bit off-putting, let me add that it somehow contrives to be a great big warm hug of a production (all about death). It’s brilliantly written by Matthew Lenton and gloriously performed by a fourteen-strong cast. Throw in the excellent Kurt Weill-ish songs of the charismatic Biff Smith, plus the music of urban folk band A New International and you have something that is as close to unique as it’s possible to be in a contemporary theatre. Oh, did I mention that the witty script is delivered entirely in verse? Well, it is – and that’s quite a feat all on its own.
The action mostly takes place below ground in Dickinson’s Brae cemetery, Glasgow, where many of the inhabitants enter and exit from their respective coffins, but there’s also a raised proscenium arch which gives occasional glimpses into what’s happening above the soil. It even offers tantalising glimpses of the doorway to heaven, though – due to austerity – that door is now kept well and truly locked, guarded by a fag-smoking, wine-imbibing angel (Natalie McCleary), intent on keeping out the riff-raff. There’s a clever socialist edge to the narrative and I love the observation that the only deceased who have any hope of lingering in the memories of the living are those that have statues and shrines devoted to them.
We are greeted first by a narrator (Elicia Daly), who has some delightful interplay with members of the audience – Fraser, I’m sure she was exaggerating your exploits! – before introducing us to the other characters. There’s Mrs Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross), a whisky-swilling Victorian lady; Major Montgomery Toast (Harry Ward), who has traded his military exploits for an electric guitar; and there’s the restless John (Malcolm Cumming), who still has unfinished business above ground. We are also introduced to tragic new member of the Necropolitans, Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough, who uncannily inhabits the persona of a bewildered young child with total conviction).
There’s so much here to enjoy that I find myself increasingly dazzled by the scale and ambition of the piece, which has been drilled to perfection. The design, the lighting, the sound: it’s all spot on. The creators describe it as a ‘music and theatre spectacle’ and I’d say that pretty much hits the coffin nail on the skull. Suffice to say that my attention doesn’t wander for a moment and I leave the theatre humming the final song.
On the night we attend, The Traverse is pretty rammed but, if there are still tickets to be had, grab them now before the carnival moves on in the direction of Dundee.
Don’t miss this. It’s a spirited production in every sense of the word.