Saturday, July 13

Moby Dick – Wilton’s Music Hall

You know the story. Boy meets whale. Whale eats boy’s leg. Boy never gets over whale. The enduring power of the novel, Moby Dick is difficult to relate to in this modern day and age for audiences without a special interest in whale anatomy or sperm oil derivation methods. Some productions take on this difficulty by recontextualizing the story, playing up its tragic or romantic elements, and this production, by the theatre ensemble simple8 technically checks both of these boxes. Our narrator/protagonist Ishmael (Mark Arends) and his beloved bunkmate Queequeg (Tom Swale) have more than a hint of chemistry and jokingly allude to a sea marriage. The doomed Captain Ahab (Guy Rhys) and his gloomy mate Starbuck (Hannah Emanuel) both take their respective roles in spreading their component elements of misery quite seriously. Agonized screams of despair abound but unfortunately act more as punctuation to the musicality of the presentation than appeals to the audience’s emotional investment in the story or characters themselves.

This visually enthralling musical production featuring live performances of sea shanties throughout the runtime is well suited to the eerie ambience of Wilton’s Music Hall and has a playful theatricality to it best exhibited by its musician-performers who navigate the backwaters of a fairly complex set while both performing and orchestrating. Unfortunately, its design triumphs in many instances overshadow its performer’s acting choices and there is a misalignment between the earnestly artistic setting and the cloying and condescending sense of humour in its script and direction. This adaptation of Melville’s opus by Sebastian Armesto is merely a hollow shell of the meaty novel that no amount of technical wizardry is able to reanimate.

The play’s songs are rhythmically engaging but fall short of the lyricism of great sea songs, or rather seem never to have aimed for it in the first place. The production’s stage effects are fanciful but ultimately ineffective as their grander gestures are muddled with contextually inappropriate mimery and the coherence of a sole visual language is never satisfactorily established. Designer Kate Bunce’s set is captivating and includes several compelling dramatic flourishes. Her costumes too are lovely and effective both in setting ambience and accomplishing storytelling. It is Johanna Town’s thrilling lighting design however that is truly exemplary of stagecraft excellence. The haunting, chilling, and overwhelmingly beautiful effects she accomplishes are a masterclass in the sorcery of dramatic illumination and a delight to behold. Performers Jonathan Charles and William Pennington pick up the rest of the slack and manage to keep the piece afloat through a combination of musical endurance and stolid commitment to the maintenance of the imagined world of the Pequod. Only Swale as Queequeg, a never uncomplicated character, whose necessitated complexity of representation has only grown since 1839, seizes the opportunity to perform here with a rare sensitivity and gravitas that elevates the entire production. With all the trappings of a moving piece of theatre and demonstrable talent in its cast and crew, this production never quite finds the wind in its sails, neglecting its story and characters in favour of shouty theatrics and in the end it founders.

Playing until 11th May, https://wiltons.org.uk/whatson/848-moby-dick

Reviewer: Kira Daniels

Reviewed: 25th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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