The producers of this musical either have perfect timing or are blessed with spooky good fortune. The theme of Whisper House is paranoia about immigrants — here it’s President Roosevelt ordering the detainment of Germans and Japanese during the Second World War — and it certainly resonates in the time of Trump.
Duncan Sheik’s score started life as a concept album in 2009 before being adapted for the stage, with additional lyrics and a book by Kyle Jarrow, and received its world premiere in California a year later.
In a lighthouse off the coast of Maine, crabby Aunt Lily (Dianne Pilkington) reluctantly takes in 11-year-old Christopher (played by Stanley Jarvis on the night I went). He’s the son of her brother who was killed in action and his mother has been committed to an asylum overcome with grief.
Miss Lily (“don’t call me auntie”) is a melancholy soul tortured by a tragedy: she accidently caused two lovers to perish on the rocks years earlier and their ghosts now haunt the lighthouse. When the local sheriff (Simon Lipkin) arrives to enforce Roosevelt’s order and detain Lily’s Japanese handyman (Nicholas Goh), Lily becomes even more angst-ridden, causing further rifts with her nephew.
Dianne Pilkington, Simon Bailey, Nicholas Goh, Simon Lipkin and Niamh Perry in Whisper House (photos by Johan Persson)
Whisper House is a deliciously dark piece of American Gothic set against the tense backdrop of German U Boats threatening the US mainland, and it grips from the word go. The masterstroke of having the sometimes malicious, sometimes mischievous ghosts as narrators gives it a thrilling and wholly original dimension.
Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry are superb as the spooks in residence — she is smouldering and sultry, he is ominously macho. Nearly all of the singing falls to them and their voices are a perfect fit for a soundtrack that has its roots in the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, rather than traditional show tunes.
Simon Lipkin triumphantly plays against type as the lawman driven by an unswerving loyalty to his country, while Dianne Pilkington is compellingly heartbreaking as the woman burdened by guilt.
Although only 90 minutes, it feels a tad too long and an unnecessary interval momentarily destroys the atmosphere. But on the whole Adam Lenson’s production is an intriguing and entertaining chamber piece.