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BWW Review: LAZARUS, King's Cross Theatre


Like David Bowie himself, this is a show that defies definition. It's both all and none of a musical, a play, a gig, performance art, philosophical meditation, a fever dream, a collective trip into the unknown. It's aesthetically ravishing, musically profound, and - though inarguably weird and frequently indecipherable - emotionally devastating.

Created just before Bowie's passing, in collaboration with playwright Enda Walsh and director Ivo van Hove, Lazarus is infused with that sense of in between, the liminal space between life and death. A rough sequel to Nicolas Roeg's 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth (whose plot is helpfully summarised) it finds stranded starman Newton - memorably inhabited by Bowie in the movie, and now equally so by Michael C Hall - trapped in lonely immortality: the "dying man who can't die".

His prison is a barren Manhattan loft, with a bed at one end and fridge at the other (the latter supplying a sickly glow). It's mundane and extraordinary, claustrophobic and boundless, as Tal Yarden's video projections burst into life - first on a screen, soon spilling out into the room and offering a trippy extra dimension in Jan Versweyveld's astonishing design.

Newton self-medicates with TV, gin and junk food, while pining for his lost family and lover Mary Lou, the human woman who left him. She returns in various forms, possibly imagined, possibly mimicked by his troubled assistant Elly. But there's no such thing as linear plotting here - particularly once a mysterious girl and love-murdering fiend crash the party.

This alien tale is frequently alienating, immersing its audience in Newton's fractured existential dislocation even as it tests our engagement (the show's baffled reception in New York is likely to be repeated here). Yet it's a hallucinatory piece of indelible moments: Hall pirouetting in grief against the screen, which tortures him with images of his lost blue-haired girl; a violent act played like an ecstatic coupling; cityscapes reeling and rippling; bodysurfing in milky liquid across a rocket ship. It's a semiotic banquet.

Walsh's book is more problematic, adding to the echoing unreality with deliberately mannered, even stilted dialogue and looping, meandering scenes. It's a high-wire act, occasionally indulgent in its treatment of Newton - that overfamiliar tortured, reclusive eccentric - and in danger of sacrificing the supporting characters to his stylish melancholy or the work's self-conscious opacity and forays into otherworldly therapy. Van Hove's elegiac production of Song from Far Away at the Young Vic - which this frequently recalls in both aesthetic and themes - benefitted from Simon Stephens's sparer and more effective lyricism.

But if Amy Lennox's Elly spends much of the time writhing suggestively in Mary Lou's blue lingerie, there are interesting parallels drawn between her and Newton. Her romantic experience is similarly off-kilter, arrestingly demonstrated by a video projection that shows her interactions with boyfriend Zach, played slightly ahead of or behind the live action. It's the human version of Newton's experience as a man out of place and out of time.

And just when either incomprehension or pretentiousness threatens to overwhelm, the music arrives. Though Bowie hits are used alongside new work, this is in no way a jukebox musical, with the outstanding combination of Henry Hey's orchestrations and Tony Gayle's sound design ensuring an ambient, atmospheric counterpoint throughout. Familiar songs are moulded into something breathtakingly new: "Changes" is a furious and frustrated struggle for identity, while a stripped-back "Heroes" is a yearning duet, a paean to liberation.

A superb band is sporadically revealed behind the tinted glass, viscerally capturing the Bowie sound. But it's Hall who's the most extraordinary medium, conjuring the great man's cadence and tone while also supplying real heft in his vocals, biting caustic disillusionment and broken anguish. Sophia Anne Caruso is mesmeric as the sweet, ethereal saviour, her guileless rendition of "Life On Mars" soaring exquisitely, while Michael Esper is appropriately disturbing as her dark mirror.

Strangely fascinating and fascinatingly strange, Lazarus is a flawed experiment but a noble one, honouring Bowie's pioneering spirit and poetic championing of the outsider. It might not attain all of its goals, but it keeps reaching for the stars.

Lazarus is at King's Cross Theatre until 22 January, 2017

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

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