Shows like this don’t come along very often. But then again neither do icons such as David Bowie. Ivo Van Hove’s musical inspired by the late star’s music is strange and ethereal, but oddly moving. And you can’t help but be intrigued by the fascinating performances and underlying context.
The script, by Bowie and Enda Walsh, is based upon the 1976 surreal cult film The Man Who Fell To Earth. In it, Bowie played the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, who crashed to Earth in search of a means to transport water back to his drought-ridden planet. His quest, ultimately unsuccessful, left him a broken and forlorn figure. Stuck on earth. His loved ones back on his home planet passed away. The girl who loved him here gone, married to someone else.
It’s here that we find Thomas, ensconced in his New York apartment, shuffling melancholically between the television and the drinks cabinet. Hiding from a world for which he neither cares nor understands, he finds himself drawn to his living assistant, Elly, who’s own life is unfulfilled and without love, he comes to see in her the image of his lost lover.
That, though, is as far as Thomas’ world is firmly based in this corporeal realm. His mind conjures a girl. A physical manifestation of its search for catharsis. Skulking ever closer from the shadows is Valentine – a mysterious dark and malevolent presence, whose unsettling nature and penchant for random violence makes him one of the more menacing characters you’ll ever see on stage.
As with most of Bowie’s work though, nothing should be taken at face value. At it’s heart, this is a deeply personal story. Of a man facing his own potential mortality and seeing not grievance, but instead a beauty in the bittersweet embrace of a release from a cruel and nonsensical humanity. One which he was never truly a part of.
At times dream-like in quality, you feel not everything may even be meant to be understood. But in a way, it doesn’t really matter. The overall effect is captivating, tense, and emotional.
The reworked songs sound great. From a soft, restrained Changes to a stripped back melancholic Heroes; old classics to brand new compositions, they are marvellous. And Michael C Hall, who can sound eerily Bowie-esque at times, gives a great performance in a role that comes with a lot of pressure and expectation. It’s a far cry from his television work on Dexter, and a testament to his credentials as a fine stage actor.
Michael C Hall as Newton and Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl (photos by Johan Persson)
Equally, Michael Esper is at his sinister best as Valentine. And Sophie Anne Caruso, as Thomas’ figment, and Amy Lennox, as Elly both display a delicate vulnerability that never verges on pity. And boy, can they all sing.
If there’s any criticism to be found it’s that, in the sense of a conventional musical (which this definitely isn’t) the songs bare very little relation to the story, and don’t move the narrative along. Each is almost an interlude to proceedings, albeit wholly enjoyable ones.
The set, a seemingly bland beige room with little adornment aside from a large central television screen winged by two plexi-glass apartment windows housing the band, is one of the most imaginative you’re likely to come across. At times utilising the entire stage as a canvas 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.
The starman may have gone back to the sky. But we’ll be forever glad he came to meet us. And, with this musical, he was right to think he might indeed blow our minds.
Lazarus is at King’s Cross Theatre until 22 January
Book tickets for Lazarus from the Radio Times box office
You might also like…
Sideshow review: Powerful musical about real-life conjoined twins
Amadeus review: A gripping revival of Peter Shaffer’s dark and saucy play about Mozart