Have years of staring at screens during the day then watching standup at night reared a generation with an appetite for live performance? London producers seem to be hoping so. There is a great bursting out of new theatres in the city. Of very different kinds. None with public subsidy. Nicholas Hytner this year announced plans for a stage at King’s Cross, backed by a small group of senior venture capital investors. At Wembley Park, Troubadour Theatres opened a giant temporary performance space this summer, in which War Horse is playing to huge audiences. Meanwhile, new small stages in the centre of town are looking enticing.
The Boulevard, funded by Soho Estates, opens on the spot where there was a theatre in the 70s, described as “a sister venue to the Raymond Revuebar” (what sort of sorority was that?). It’s a luscious, adaptable place with a pink art deco-style bar and restaurant and an auditorium, seating about 165, that can swivel, sink and rise; as well as plays, there will be late-night cabaret and standup. The artistic director is Rachel Edwards, who spiced up London a few years ago with a cracking production of Sweeney Todd in a pie and mash shop, and Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians in the old Central St Martins School of Art.
The director of those triumphs, Bill Buckhurst, now delivers a dark, elusive, shimmering show written and composed by Dave Malloy. Ghost Quartet, billed as a song cycle about love, loss and whisky, is influenced by Stephen King, the idea of a rock concept album and memories of people telling spooky stories around a camp fire. Above a circular stage crammed with harp, piano, violin, cello, a globe and books, a breastbone made into a musical instrument hangs faintly glowing like a luminous Damien Hirst installation. Four musicians perform numbers that slip into each other like snakes consuming their own tails.
There is a story of fear on the subway involving a pusher and a photographer and the murderous Northumbrian ballad The Twa Sisters. On the piano, Zubin Varla summons Thelonious Monk – while Simon Kenny’s design suggests the sleeve for Monk’s album Underground. Niccolò Curradi makes his cello sound like a pulse and a wind through foliage, as he becomes a bear devising a magical quest. The voices of Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon swoop and rise as if they came from phantom pharynxes. The Fall of the House of Usher is plundered, with its observation that one sign of morbidity is a liking for insipid food. A high-spirited skit debates whether it’s better to be a vampire or a ghost. In a final act of disappearance the performers melt away, leaving the audience in charge of the stage.
Backed and presented by veteran producer Bill Kenwright, the Turbine, a theatrical engine within the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, has been purring along a little longer than the Boulevard. Tucked under railway arches, the theatre, which seats up to 200, from time to time catches the rumble of trains, which gives a sense of urban snugness. Artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills, who moved from the musical-producing Other Palace theatre, kicked off a season of reconsidered classics in the summer with Torch Song. High Fidelity is the second show.
It’s 24 years since Nick Hornby’s novel defined a particular 20th-century way of being male with his picture of the obsessive, thirtysomething white chap, good at lists, bad at commitment, more adept with emotion on vinyl than in the flesh. Hornby’s wry undermining of herohood is given a twist in Tom Jackson Greaves’s bright but overexcited production.
The stage version (music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Amanda Green, book by David Lindsay-Abaire), which folded in New York after fewer than 20 performances, has been sharply adapted by Vikki Stone. The women’s roles come up with more sceptical edge in the strong voices of Shanay Holmes, Eleanor Kane and Bobbie Little. Not everything is refracted through the eyes of the sad-sack narrator – “a go-getter in an Oxfam sweater” – who is given a sinister gleam by Oliver Ormson, with staring eyes and wolfish grin. His more hesitant colleague (dolefully sweet Carl Au) comes through winningly, while a pseudo-hippy is neatly skewered by Stone’s rhymes, which explain that his methods are “pretty European, but mostly pure Ian”.
It was a good decision, too, to move the action back from America to Hornby’s original setting of north London’s Holloway Road, which is more apt for dog-eared defiance. Custard creams now get a mention. It’s a merry little show, but the pluses are almost all verbal. What a pity that, in a play about the giddy effects of musical numbers, in which homage is paid to folk, Neil Young, soul and Springsteen, there is not a single knockout, unavoidably memorable song.
When the Crows Visit is the most recent play this year to spin a variation on Ibsen. Anupama Chandrasekhar takes from Ghosts the theme of a dread inheritance and delivers an important account of violence against women in India. It’s a pummelling evening. Indhu Rubasingham’s production starts too ferociously, and there are bumps along the way. But Richard Kent’s design – a shadow crow, a sky flushing red as blood is spilt – is starkly impressive, and there is an unflinching performance by Ayesha Dharker. She seems soldered together by opposing horrors: grief at the past and anguish at the future.
Star ratings (out of five)
Ghost Quartet ★★★★
High Fidelity ★★★
When the Crows Visit ★★★
• Ghost Quartet is at the Boulevard, London, until 4 January
• High Fidelity is at the Turbine, London, until 7 December
• When the Crows Visit is at the Kiln, London, until 30 November