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BWW Review: WHISPER HOUSE, The Other Palace

What a curious piece of work Whisper House is. Its strengths are very impressive, but its weaknesses undermine it to such an extent that its hard to make any judgment about its ultimate success as a piece of musical theatre. It's time for this reviewer to reach for that cliche of fence sitting - the thing is a curate's egg.

The songs are much the best element of the show. Duncan Sheik's Grammy and Tony Award winning pedigree comes through in splendid rock-inflected but never overpowering numbers like "Better To Be Dead" and the wonderful, "The Tale Of Solomon Snell", a macabre Edgar Allen Poe inspired story-within-a-story. Daniel A Weiss marshals his seven piece band skilfully getting the balance between instruments and voices just right - a welcome result never to be taken for granted in any theatre!

Most of these excellent songs are sung by Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry, who play the ghosts of singers drowned in a shipwreck, wandering at will around the stage commenting on the action. Both have the flexibility in their voices to move easily from "gig" singing to "musical theatre" singing without missing a beat.

So far so good, but the show's roots as a concept album are simply too visible for it to succeed fully as a theatrical show. The book, by Kyle Jarrow, has its heart in the right place and, having assembled a set of reliably Dickensian characters, he has the raw material to inject the narrative drive required to drive the plot from song to song - but it just doesn't happen.

Dianne Pilkington does what she can with Aunt Lily, a spinster learning to cope with emotional attachments after shutting down years earlier, blaming herself for the shipwreck. Nicholas Goh gives a fine understated performance as the Japanese hired help, secretly in love with Lily but facing wartime internment at the hands of Simon Lipkin's redneck sheriff transplanted to the Maine coastline, who probably harbours some hope of romance with the lighthouse keeper too. Disrupting all this Victorian novel, buttoned-up denial of feelings is Christopher, a fine debut by Stanley Jarvis, as the boy whose pilot father has been shot down, sending his mother insane and him to his aunt. Inevitably and understandably, the kid latches on to the sheriff as a substitute father figure whom he wishes to impress with his patriotic antagonism (and more) towards Mr Yasuhiro.

But not enough happens! The characters are one-dimensional and develop little over the course of a relatively short show and, just when one would expect a reveal or significant jeopardy to affect someone other than saintly Mr Yasuhiro, the show finishes with an post-curtain encore led by the ghosts now completely out of character, lending a jarring pantomime tone after a tense 100 minutes.

If it were billed were a live concert performance of an album stuffed with songs rich in story-telling and complex melodies, this show would gain a solid four stars - but it's not. As a musical, its flaws, for all its relevance re the resurgence of xenophobia in Western democracies' polity, are simply too great to work around, despite the centrality of great songs to any musical's success. A missed opportunity, but a curio worth seeing for those interested in how book, music and lyrics must come together if a show is to achieve its potential - and the price to be paid if they don't!

Whisper House continues at The Other Palace until 27 May.

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