You have to admire Andrew Lloyd Webber’s remit for The Other Palace. The former St James Theatre became his latest acquisition last year, underwent a name change, and is now charged with giving a home to experimentation and innovation.
Whisper House, which opened last week on the main stage, fits the bill perfectly.
It’s a gripping WWII drama from across the pond that will resonate with people watching the real life horror story being played out in modern day American politics.
But it is also a chilling ghost yarn about unrequited love, shipwrecks and malevolent spirits.
Not content to stop there, Whisper House also crams a musical into its production brief with Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s outstanding numbers superbly performed by heavenly ghosts, Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry.
Dramatically, it is impossible to take your eyes off Dianne Pilkington’s powerful turn as the tragic spinster, Aunt Lily, who finds herself in the middle of a Dickensian arrangement, caring for her dead brother’s young son.
The boy is grieving for his heroic pilot dad, who was shot down by the Japs, and mourning the loss of his suicidal mother who’s been locked away in an asylum. He’s confused, angry, and now plunged into a world that he knows nothing about.
With no other close relatives he has been bundled off to his aunt, a lame, recalcitrant, old maid in charge of an isolated lighthouse.
She was estranged from her brother years ago and it takes a lot of pushing from her stubborn, young guest to find out the reason why.
The pair had never met. Now she is uncertain how to care for a child. Her manner is tough, uncompromising, and awkward.
In return bewildered Christopher is horrified to find that Aunt Lily has a Japanese handyman. While we find out snatches of back story from the play’s main characters Nicholas Goh’s Mr Yasuhiro remains clouded in mystery.
Is he a spy or an innocent foreign man trapped in the wrong place, at the wrong time?
Yasuhiro’s freedom is threatened as xenophobia and paranoia take hold of communities. Aliens are viewed as enemy spies and the government issues edicts to move foreigners away from strategic areas or into prison camps.
Worst, the impressionable Chris, finds himself manipulated by unseen forces and a redneck sheriff who persuades the young boy to put homeland security before the needs of his aunt.
All the while the lad keeps hearing voices in the lighthouse. Is it haunted? And if so, by whom?
Whisper House is an engrossing night’s entertainment but it suffers by trying too hard to please.
The gripping plot would make an excellent straight stage drama, particularly right now when Trump is whipping up domestic hostility against Muslims.
Yet the music is equally good – but not entirely needed or comfortably at home in this supernatural thriller. It’s all rather contrived especially when the audience is finally told the truth about the evil-looking Perry and her smirking, smarmy sidekick.
The always excellent Simon Lipkin, as the sheriff, often has nothing to do other than to sit and smoke while the singers prowl around the set, exchanging knowing glances and performing numbers.
Pilkington’s Lily and her relationship with Christopher is the centre of attention.
She is one of those formidable, independent, spinsters always seemingly found in small-town American communities. There’s always something lurking in their past that has kept them from finding happiness or love, whether it’s a failed love affair or a dark secret.
Fisher Costello-Rose, playing Christopher on the night I was in, gives an impressive performance as the vulnerable child.
Whisper House is an intense and moody melodrama with few light spots. Everyone, from the living to the dead, are emotionally fractured, consumed with grief and loneliness, but there are occasions when Lily shows her human side by saying or doing something that raises a wry smile.
Director Adam Lenson throws in a few visual and audio effects to enhance your viewing pleasure (I particularly liked the mug trick) but some of the computer graphics, in lieu of actual set, didn’t work.
Nevertheless, a fascinating and originally presented production. Whisper House plays at The Other Palace until May 27.
Loneliness, isolation and a threat from beyond. Whisper House blends a timely WWII supernatural thriller with music for a gripping melodrama.