Review: Ghost Quartet, Gasworks Arts Park (VIC)

Reuben Liversidge

The inaugural production from Antipodes presents Dave Malloy’s exquisite and eclectic song cycle about life, death, ghosts and whiskey.
Review: Ghost Quartet, Gasworks Arts Park (VIC)

Photo: Junior Deluise.

‘Let me read you a story

Let me read you a romance

I will read; you will listen

And this terrible night will pass’

Thus begins Ghost Quartet, composer Dave Malloy’s exquisite and eclectic song cycle about life, death, ghosts and whiskey. The lyrics to opening number I Don’t Know couldn’t be more pertinent as the opening night audience filed into the intimate Studio Theatre at Gasworks on a cold and drizzly mid-winter Melbourne night.

The warm performance space is filled with glowing lamps and light bulbs, battered wooden sideboards and worn-out rugs, all beckoning the audience to sit down and listen to a ghost story or two. The songs are announced by side and track number, like an old LP record, and range from gentle pop-folk ballads to clanging Tom Waits-esque dirges. They are brilliantly performed by a charismatic quartet of multitalented actor-musicians: David Butler (who also serves as Musical Director), Melissa David, Patrick Schnur and Willow Sizer. Each performer inhabits a corner of the room and they play several instruments throughout the show. Their individual strengths are allowed to shine during solo numbers and duets, but Ghost Quartet really takes off when the ensemble sing and play together, such as during the tongue-in-cheek Any Kind of Dead Person and the rousing ode to whiskey, Four Friends.

Director Brandon Pape stages the scenes and songs simply, allowing the performers to naturally inhabit their various characters and bounce off one another in an effortless and spontaneous way. Molloy’s score is wildly varied and harmonically challenging, but the cast and creative team have clearly taken care and time in getting this production performance ready and it shows. The actors don’t seem to be playing from any scores and every note and word is pitch perfect. This marvellous and meticulous preparation comes in particularly handy during a 15-minute sequence towards the end of the show that is played out in complete darkness. In this moment, the beauty of the material comes into sharper focus and forces the audience to lean in and listen. It all culminates with the song Hero, a powerful slow-build ballad performed with heart pounding emotion by Melissa David.

The sound design was a bit hit and miss on opening night. The performers had both handheld and head microphones, but the overall mix wasn’t amplified enough and from where I was sitting, Willow Sizer’s words were quite hard to decipher. This was a bit of a shame as it made it even harder to understand the already difficult to decipher plot points and characters; Ghost Quartet features several stories, ranging from a modern subway murder mystery to a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and they often blend into each other with characters popping up in unexpected places. Hopefully these issues have now been sorted out. It was also a strange choice to have the performers speak with American accents (although Melissa David is from the US) The piece is not particularly of a specific place, aside from a throwaway mention of Portland in one early scene, and the accents become slightly and unnecessarily distracting. These minor concerns do little to distract from what is a unique, intimate and sensational production.

The scale may be small, but the achievement here is massive. Ghost Quartet is the inaugural production for new independent theatre company Antipodes and it is a wonderful success. It’s rare to see a show in such good shape on opening night and the whole company should be proud of what they have achieved. Ghost Quartet will make you feel alive, have you stamping your feet and maybe even spook you out a little.

3.5 stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Ghost Quartet
Presented by Antipodes Theatre Company
Music, Lyrics and Text by David Malloy
Directed and Designed by Brandon Pape
Featuring David Butler, Melissa David, Patrick Schnur and Willow Sizer
14-23 August 2019
Gasworks Arts Park VIC
Tickets $30-$42

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.