Following the runaway success of the Tony Award winning Spring Awakening was never going to be an easy task, but that is the burden that Whisper House bears. Duncan Sheik’s next musical is considerably shorter and much more contained, with just a cast of six in its two act duration.
Whisper House is a somewhat experimental musical. For one thing, its subject matter is a little unexpected – a gothic horror story set in an American coastal town in the middle of World War II. Then again, in this day and age, literally anything and everything can be adapted into a musical, and if anyone can do a rock musical, it’s Duncan Sheik. In brief, Whisper House is set in a creaky old lighthouse which becomes Christopher’s new home (Stanley Jarvis) following the death of his pilot father and his mother’s commitment to an asylum. He meets and immediately takes a dislike to his new guardian, his Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington) and harbours high suspicion towards her Japanese assistant Mr Yasuhiro (Nicholas Goh). While learning to accept this newfound family and coping with the ongoing war, he befriends straightlaced Sheriff Charles (Simon Lipkin) and is haunted by the lighthouse’s resident ghosts (Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry), star-crossed lovers and the last remaining spectres of a tragic boat accident some years back.
The second odd thing about Whisper House is its choice of singers, almost solely relegated to the two ghosts (who were also given the strangely convenient plot point that they used to be singers aboard a ship). Musicals such as The Last Five Years have been created where the same vocalists sing throughout the entire duration of the play, but with Whisper House, despite having a cast of six, only two of them really sing during the performance, with one or two other characters chiming in from time to time. Sheik’s compositions, while pleasing to the ears, are hard to differentiate in this musical, which lacks a particularly memorable or resounding number, unlike say “Totally F***ed” from Spring Awakening. Sheik’s lyrics are also strangely clunky in Whisper House, with some awkward rhymes and word choices that feel like a mismatch with the tunes.
Thankfully though, both Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are more than capable singers, and handle Sheik’s material with aplomb. The two ghosts shared an undeniable spiritual link onstage, and their duets played off each other’s voices spectacularly, contributing to the overall atmosphere of the production. In addition, being the least earthbound characters, both Bailey and Perry were given somewhat more freedom to roam around the stage, and it was obvious that they were having a lot of fun with their roles, amping up the ghastly and creepy aspects of their characters. A definite highlight was the Act 1 closer, “Earthbound Starlight”, a somewhat slower paced number that allowed Whisper House to finally access its more emotional side, as well as the showstopping final number “Take A Bow”, ending off the entire show on a high note. Kudos also goes out to the members of the live band playing to the tune of Jason Hart’s orchestration.
Much of Whisper House’s problems also lie with its writing, with Kyle Jarrow’s script often feeling like simply filling in the blanks between songs. Far too often, character backstories felt tacked on and rushed, just short of a few extra lines or scenes to really care about these characters, or leave a stronger impression. One might have felt more compelled to understand Christopher’s emotional distress upon betraying his aunt, if there had been a scene to better establish the possibility of a stronger relationship between the two. This is made all the more disappointing because Jarrow’s script actually does contain a lot of promise, and has all the elements it needs to succeed, but simply lacked the emotional buildup really required for Whisper House to leave an impact as opposed to merely narrating events in a story. Whisper House’s pacing also felt a little off, with a long narrative buildup in the first act, only to release all the pent up plot in a single melodramatic act (which, granted, was quite well done) and almost as if the script skipped past a few scenes.
In terms of writing though, Simon Lipkin’s Sheriff Charles was a definite standout character, stepping up the pace and providing some much needed warmth and humour upon his introduction. Lipkin was even given a chance to show off his vocal chops in “The Tale of Solomon Snell”, a well choreographed number that injected some energy into the otherwise slow start. Despite a heel-face turn in the second act, his actions always remained understandable, though his methods reprehensible, and was by far given the best lines. For Dianne Pilkington’s Aunt Lily, despite being given a few painfully hackneyed lines and an otherwise simple character stereotype, Pilkington was given a chance to shine in the second act’s climax, and delivered a strong performance that both redeemed her relationship with Christopher and wormed her way back into our hearts.
Whisper House would not be a proper gothic horror musical without careful attention to the atmosphere. Utilizing a circular stage backed by some evocative projections created the illusion of a small, narrow space, reminiscent of German expressionist cinema and left us feeling a sense of claustrophobia as characters leapt around Andrew Riley’s limited space, and in and out the round chasm in the middle of the stage representing a room in the lighthouse, emphasising the feeling of entrapment. Big praise also goes out to Alex Drofiak’s lighting design, which provided an eerie atmosphere when required, and transformed the entire set into a raging sea, lights flashing and the stage flooded with blue.
Performance attended 21/4/17
Whisper House plays at The Other Palace Theatre, London till 27 May. Tickets available here