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FringeReview Scotland 2019

The Dark Carnival

Vanishing Point, in association with A New International, the Citizen’s Theatre and Dundee Rep

Genre: Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Tramway Theatre, Glasgow


Low Down

On a daily basis, Peter visits his grave. Under his feet, a coffin has his John, now unwell, amongst those who appear neither dead nor undead but just waiting. We are treated to an array of characters who are here to survive and entertain, as narrator Elicia Daly, takes us through why they may be here, how they came to be here and, along with those of us recently arrived, what may become of us all. It’s a cabaret style romp through a story that was seldom shouted but often whispered by those who experienced it; two men caught having compromised their love in a compromising position – one going to hell, the other living it. The one left behind’s agony is played out daily at the grave, whilst his lover’s escape unfolds in a ghostly way that ends in a ghastly fashion. We end with a rebellion of the undead for justice – it makes more sense when you get there, for the audience are treated as the recent arrivals to this “ purgatory”.


From the beginning, with the entrance of our narrator, this was a performance aiming to be different and yet to be part of the tradition of telling a damn good story. It was less reverential and more self-regarding than simply, telling the tale, and it follows a well trodden music hall format telling a tale of now, but based in a calumny of the past. It is a very multi layered performance piece which is what you come to expect from Vanishing Point.

Our central story is told with a certain flair and panache from a cast blessed with the magnificent Ann Louise Ross, the characterful Harry Ward, as Major Toast, the brilliant MC always at your side, Biff Smith and a wonderfully nuanced performance from Peter Kelly; all bringing depth and strength to director, Mathew Lenton.

This is Lenton’s idea, conception and script. The lyrical accompaniment comes from the aforementioned Smith and takes some of the daftness and adds plenty of deftness. There are times that the rhymes of the script might not follow the flow of the action and a few times that the connections between that above and that below don’t quite get through the exchange when they were meant to, but, if this is fairy tale, then a modern Grimm tale it is.

We also have an ending, followed by another and then we finish with a final one which makes it less of a climax than a stutter – but an opportunity to hear that music again is almost forgivable; almost… We have an “in house” band – A New International with a host of original songs oompahing their way through the afterlife. The music is a feast for the ears, our eyes are already gorging on some theatrical splendor.

It is the life of those onstage that make this thing work so well. Performances manage to take the words off the page and make them dance in rhythm and rhyme where they have lyrical bounce. Whilst there are a few great performances already mentioned I must pick out one actor for special note; I am sure those more seasoned will indulge me. In amongst such experienced actors as Kelly and Ross and internationally renowned artists like Ramesh Meyyappan, it would be easy to get overawed or lost. Malcolm Cumming, the Robertson Trust Citizens Theatre Actor Intern, does much more than hold his own and is never floundering in such company. A nuanced and subtle performance that has clearly benefitted from being in such august company, it is clear that he has taken this lesson well – take note Robertson’s Trust – the scheme is a winner.

Lenton’s direction keeps things well paced, though at over 90 minutes, it could have done with a half time break, or using the first climax to finish off.

The music is, however, more than a treat – it brings with it, Biff Smith. Smith is more than a singer, he is a consummate performer. He knows where the spotlight sits, can find the shadows and leap out when it is most effective to so do. His leaping and bounding gave both focus and energy to the entire production. It’s a mean band at his back and Caroline Evans, Craig Laurie, Stephen McGourty, Jo Shaw, Ross Bahlaj and Euan Allardice may be chiefly playing themselves – along with guitar player and Major Montgomery Toast, Harry Ward – but they do so with a smile, a twinkle and togetherness that matches the acting troupe; both combined is a force with which we all loved to reckon.

The set is sumptuous. Kenneth McLeod has done a tremendous job of giving us the downstairs dungeon and the upstairs hell. We get a brilliantly conceived method of keeping them apart and with an angel who looks quite fallen, the interaction with Ghost hunting Gary and the gravedigger, the setting manages to keep our thoughts above intermingled with the action below; the stage is more than (a) set.

Overall this has our theatrical tradition set fair in the wind, and the telling set at a jaunty angle. We have a story that has roots in the fine Scottish tradition of telling a complex yet simple story of ghosties and ghoulies by a fireside, being able to draw fantastic phantasms with hearts and stashes of whiskey into the living room whilst bringing a morality tale steeped in the 20th Century right up to date to entertain and enthrall.


Show Website

The Dark Carnival