David Bowie’s Lazarus at King’s Cross Theatre – review round-up
Since David Bowie died in January – an early sign of 2016’s relentless cruelty – his star has, if possible, risen even higher. The legendary musician’s enigmatic lustre has been burnished with the polish of the taken-too-soon. His sales have soared. His final album, Blackstar, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. And his last project, the experimental musical Lazarus, has become one of London’s hottest tickets.
The show, co-written with Enda Walsh and directed by Ivo van Hove, has transferred from off-Broadway to an enormous, soulless pop-up tent near King’s Cross, bringing with it Michael C Hall, Sophia Ann Caruso, and an awful lot of hype.
Pretty much the entire world’s press turned out to review its London opening. Everyone from the Hollywood Reporter to Luton Today has chipped in with their two-pennyworth. And everyone disagrees. There’s love and there’s hate, one-star reviews and five-star reviews. Trust David Bowie to hand the world a parting gift that provokes such total consternation.
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
Lazarus – Utterly alien
Lazarus was intended as a sequel to Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie played Thomas Newton, a lonesome extra-terrestrial trapped on Earth. Lazarus picks things up 40 years later. Newton (Michael C Hall) is now outrageously wealthy, drinking himself deeper and deeper into existential depression in a beige New York penthouse.
But the critics can’t even agree what to call it. “Lazarus is, really, a jukebox musical for people who think they’re too hip for We Will Rock You,” writes Hadley Freeman (The Guardian). “This is the respectable face of jukebox,” affirms Tim Bano (Exeunt). “This is in no way a jukebox musical,” says Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★). Right, that’s cleared that up.
“It is part sci-fi story, part rock concert, part video installation, part study in alienation,” explains Michael Billington (The Guardian, ★★★). “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,” is Swain’s riposte.
But this confusion over form is nothing compared to the confusion over Lazarus’ storyline, if one exists. There’s definitely a love interest and a murderous villain. But beyond that…
“What it lacks,” writes Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★★), “is any real narrative arc.” Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) agrees in harsher tones, condemning it as having “the narrative elusiveness of a pop video.” And Hannah Jane Parkinson (The Guardian) puts it even more bluntly: “Lazarus can feel like listening to a friend tell you about their dream.”
Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) reacts to this paucity of plot contemplatively. “A proper David Bowie musical was never going to be succinctly explicable,” he ruminates, echoing Dominic Cavendish’s (The Telegraph, ★★★) sentiment that “it’s hard to engage head or heart when there’s so much enigma.”
There are some willing to forgive Lazarus’ absence of tangible story. Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★★★) argues that, understood or not, the production is “captivating, tense and emotional.” And there are some that are not. In a scathing review, Ann Treneman (Times, ★) damns Bowie’s last work as “pretentious rubbish”, apologising but asserting that “sometimes, you have to say it like it is.”
Lazarus – Her sunken dream
Wells provides the most helpful visual description of Jan Versweyveld’s bland apartment set, extolling it as “one of the most imaginative you’re likely to come across” and heaping praise upon Tal Yarden’s video projections. “At times utilising the entire stage as a canvas,” he explains, “it transports you from the confines of a self-imposed prison to anywhere the imagination can take you. And that’s some quite strange places.”
Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★) seconds that, writing that Van Hove and Versweyveld’s production “looks sensational,” “recalling their work for Simon Stephens’s Song from Far Away at the Young Vic last year.” Billington thirds that, confessing himself “more impressed by the visual sophistication than emotionally engaged by the story.”
Not all are as taken with Lazarus’ aesthetics. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★) complains that Van Hove’s production is “stuck in a mode of sophisticated solemnity” and Ann Treneman continues her diatribe by denigrating the show as “like an interminable music video from the 1990s: inchoate, jerky movements; Rorschach ink blots that spread; nubile young women in lingerie, Smurf hair and other ghostly apparitions; pictures of Mars and pointless shots of empty roads.”
There’s plenty of love for Hall, though. Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) labels him “hypnotically brilliant,” and Crompton praises how he “holds it all together with a kind of anguished abandon, singing the songs with a pure passion and power that invests them with a new life.” And Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) isn’t the only one to appreciatively acknowledge how Hall’s voice “sounds uncannily like Bowie’s.”
Lazarus – Let’s Dance?
On to those songs, then. Bowie largely uses songs from his celebrated back catalogue reworked in new arrangements, but sprinkles three new numbers in as he does so.
“The big draw is clearly the Bowie score,” asserts Billington, who confesses himself unconvinced but acknowledges that “Bowie buffs will be delighted.” The Guardian helpfully ordered three music journos to accompany him: Freeman, Parkinson, and Alex Petridis. Petridis picks apart the score forensically, concluding that although the “Broadway-ification” of Bowie’s songs is mercifully dialled down, many have been “crowbarred in with craven clumsiness.”
But the cool-headed calculations of a music journo are lost in a sea of teary-eyed, Bowie-loving theatre critics. For Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★★★), there is “something transcendent” in the musical numbers, for Wells, “the reworked songs sound great,” and it all gets a bit too much for Cavendish during Where Are We Now?, causing “a mist of emotion-steeped reverie to descend.”
Tom Parry (Mirror) simply asserts that Lazarus is “as close as any of us will get to a final gig.”
Lazarus – Is it any good?
Who can tell? For Lukowski it’s “weirdly caught between aggressive artiness and a certain triteness,” while for Crompton it’s “a show full of wild energy, magical effects and overwhelming music.” For Wells it’s “dreamlike,” but for Hitchings it’s “disappointingly earthbound.” And Trenemen would give it zero stars if she could.
There’s such discord among the critical ranks over Lazarus that perhaps this idiosyncratic final transmission from one of Britain’s greatest musicians is best summed up by the man himself in his eternal classic, Life on Mars? – this really is the freakiest show.
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