Review: ONLY AN OCTAVE APART, Wilton's Music Hall

When these two sync, the show rises.

By: Oct. 03, 2022
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Only An Octave Apart

Only An Octave Apart"Keep it pretty, keep it shallow, keep it moving." As well as being words that American cabaret singer Justin Vivian Bond (pronoun v) lives by, they go some way to sum up Only An Octave Apart, this eye-catching and pacy two-hander with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.

It's an unusual but not unknown pairing of two very different art forms, at least on this side of the Atlantic: Le Gateau Chocolat and Jonny Woo's musical shows also combine opera and cabaret while Phelim McDermott's Così fan tutte for the ENO makes superb use of London-based variety artistes.

As well as an octave, the two are separated by a noticeable amount of height and a couple of decades in age. It's interesting to note that in the same year that Bond was performing v's first round of farewell gigs as one half of famed drag lounge duo Kiki & Herb, Costanzo was graduating magna cum laude in music from Princeton. They have trodden different paths to get to this show but, together, there's a synergy here that can't be denied.

Only An Octave Apart debuted a year ago in New York City's St. Anne's Warehouse and comes to London in a sharp and ready state. Bond and Costanzo sing well together even if the between-song banter can feel contrived in places. The Joe's Pub regular still has a comedic edge as v throws out typical lines like "You can tell when you're at the opera. You wake up and you're still at the opera." Costanzo is happy to play the straight man role and laugh along while his on-stage partner opines "if I'm not speaking, how do I know what I'm thinking?"

The striking contrast between the voices is probably this show's most fascinating feature. Costanzo's is generally pitched much higher than Bond's which adds new depth and nuance to certain songs. Sure, there's some stinkers like their joint effort on disco hit Stars but that can all be forgiven for superb duets on the oldie-but-goldie "Me And My Shadow", the Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel ballad "Don't Give Up" and the Queen/David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure". A show-closing mashup of The Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian" and a snippet of Philip Glass's seminal opera Akhnaten (about the pharaoh also known as Amenhotep IV) will likely only appeal to those familiar with both works.

Costanzo shows impressive levels of patience with Bond's showboating interruptions (especially for one of Sicilian heritage) but, when given a spotlight and the stage, the Met Opera man is simply magnificent. On his version of Edith Piaf's "Les feuilles mortes", he sings beautifully in French while leaves fall down about him before effortlessly switching to German for "Über Allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" by Franz Liszt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The venue's haunting acoustics only add to the effect and, with any luck, this performance will nudge Wilton's towards putting on more opera.

Bond for v's part keeps the show grounded, calling out songs which pay homage to v's "trancestors" and declaring "I am everything - that is the pleasure and treasure of being non-binary." V alludes to Wilton's music hall roots with the vaudeville song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" which v blends with Tom Waits' "Rainbow Sleeves". Like the Egyptian finale, this works better as a concept than as a live experience but showcases Bond's strong voice.

The costumes designed by Jonathan Anderson go from the experimental "car dresses" that they first appear in to stylised bird outfits (white swan for Bond, black crow for Costanzo) and other shimmering numbers all of which sparkle under John Torres' evocative lighting. The set design is fun and colourful and makes full use of Wilton's deep stage.

Only An Octave Apart is ninety minutes long but is pacy enough to hold the interest throughout. The effort gone into exploring the similarities and differences in Bond and Costanzo's respective singing styles deserves praise even if the performing styles are sometimes incongruent. There are some very enjoyable solo numbers but, when these two sync, that's when the show really rises.

Only An Octave Apart continues at Wilton's Music Hall until 22 October 2022.

Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

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