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Midnight review at the Union Theatre, London – ‘energetically staged musical with smart design’

Midnight, Union Theatre Norma Butikofer, Leon Scott, Colin Burnicle (front), Luke Thornton, Ashley Daniels (back) in Midnight. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1937, a couple surviving tenuously in the Soviet Union are visited by the devil in the form of a secret policeman. Based on the play Citizens of Hell, by prominent Azerbaijani politician Elchin, Timothy Knapman’s version is a bleak and serious-minded musical harbouring some savagely black humour. ‘How do you spell fingernails?’ interjects a junior torturer midway through a song about the unappreciated hard work involved in meeting your execution quotas.

Director Kate Golledge gives the show a clever, energetic, staging, but doesn’t quite overcome the sluggishness of a first act that spends ages grappling with a thoroughly familiar premise.

Laurence Mark Wythe’s score has a swirly but somewhat samey thirties vibe, all flurrying fiddles and warbling clarinet. Pianist Harry Haden-Brown provides much of the momentum with clear, resonant melodies cutting through the band’s boisterous playing.

Leon Scott, as the infernal Visitor, at least has the range and sheer projecting power to put his mark on the vocals, alternately snarling and revelling in the sheer inhumanity all around him. The supporting cast, too, are keen and committed, playing most of the instruments and lurking around the fringes of the stage dressed in ragged, ash-smeared Communist Party uniforms.

Elliott Squire’s smart design blends seamlessly into the Union Theatre’s atmospheric industrial space. The stage’s wooden floorboards and illuminated doorways give way to raw brick, where a vast portrait of Stalin hangs overhead, overlooking the horrors of his hellish regime.

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Ponderous musical parable grapples with the morality of self-preservation