New musical theatre house The Other Palace opens with this weird, dark tale of '20s excess
Showgirl Queenie and vaudevillian clown Burrs live together. They hate each other. He can’t live without her. Their life is a toxic blur of faded stars and hangers-on, with sex and violence surging at the edges. It’s the 1920s. They throw a final, blowout party.
Adapted from Joseph McClure March’s narrative verse poem of 1927, this show – book by Michael John LaChiusa and George Wolfe, with LaChiusa also providing the cynicism-dipped songs – originally premiered off-Broadway in 2000, with Toni Collette as Queenie. Here, musical theatre legend Frances Ruffelle takes the role.
'The Wild Party' is making its UK debut in a production heralding the launch of the re-branded St James Theatre as The Other Palace – a home for musical theatre in all of its forms, backed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and under Paul Taylor-Mills’ artistic directorship.
As a statement of intent, 'The Wild Party' is an intriguing one. It's fiercely, viciously dark and lacks any real plot. This is not a mainstream musical; it's not an easy sell to your casual punter hankering after a catchy tune. It's the kind of show you stage when you want to say: 'we're going to be mixing things up’.
Like the live jazz throbbing away in the background, the show works like an extended riff – on a theme of doom-laden debauchery. Director Drew McOnie keeps things breathless from the start. His choreography never lets up, as a parade of characters who are busily ruining their lives spin across the stage like broken puppets. They’re archetypes of an age. It's a rush of sound and high-impact lighting, heavily indebted to 'Chicago'. A makeup-caked Ruffelle is a woman fleeing her fading youth in gin and drugs. Her boozy, bawdy duets with best frenemy, Kate (a scene-stealing Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) are a highlight. There’s also strong work from Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea as ‘brothers’ Oscar and Phil. This is a show full of people with secrets.
But ‘The Wild Party’ is also a strange, uncomfortable thing. Its scenes of domestic violence and attempted assault sit uneasily with the ‘big-number’ approach to the songs and staging. The flicks into broad humour are often whiplashing. There’s a ton of energy pouring out of this production, but somehow it never feels as feverishly grotesque as the world of this show demands.
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