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The Dark Carnival review at Tramway, Glasgow – ‘sumptuous, cleverly constructed gig theatre’

Biff Smith in The Dark Carnival at Tramway, Glasgow. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Death is a cabaret, old chum, in this collaboration between Matthew Lenton’s theatre company Vanishing Point and Biff Smith’s Glasgow band A New International.

A fresh batch of the newly deceased is being indoctrinated into the ways of death by Elicia Daly’s whimsical, rhyming narrator. It soon becomes clear that in death, as in life, a wee dram and some good songs help to pass the hours.

Smith’s music is more cabaret than carnival, with a strong whiff of Brecht and Weill. The songs hold together a tale of lost love – octogenarian Peter (Peter Kelly) faithfully visits the grave of his boyhood lover John (Malcolm Cumming) 60 years after his death.

A child (Olivia Barrowclough) attempts reconciliation, appearing to Laurie Scott’s ghost-hunting Gary to pass a message from the dead to the living. Above them all, Natali McCleary’s angel sneers down from her cloud, the gates permanently closed on an austerity-hit heaven.

Kenneth MacLeod’s design features sprawling, stacked coffins and a fastidiously neat graveyard, tended by Ramesh Meyyappan’s gravedigger. Simon Wilkinson’s lighting is as sumptuous as it is hard-working, neatly framing the separate, above-ground area so that the living can be seen by the dead.

There is plenty to love about this cleverly constructed and gorgeously presented piece of gig theatre: the brilliant band, the potent reminder of the realities of gay love in the 1950s, and the parallels between the shuttered heaven with today’s monied elite.

But Lenton’s production lacks a substantial centre and Daly’s narrator is an anonymously bland figure, allowing events to unfurl instead of driving them forwards.

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Sumptuous and richly designed gig theatre show, with music by Biff Smith and A New International