This World Lousy is a production whose soul is music. It’s an opera-style musical, with a newly-composed score played by a live orchestra, and a cast of talented singers. Its qualities as a musical are so polished that the plot, by comparison, shines less brightly. The musical follows the story of a man in flight from his past, who meets enigmatic characters along the way. The overall impression is beautiful architecturally, but the content does not quite match up to the frame.
The original score, composed by Peter Shepherd, is truly captivating. The music was masterly performed by the live orchestra, hidden behind the St John the Evangelist church choir. On a technical note, at times the instruments’ loudness made it difficult to hear the singers, especially individual actors, when both parts would deserve to be heard equally. The in-the-woods, fantasy set designed by Ksenia Kulakova complemented the music, alongside the impeccable light design by Chris Burr.
As the programme reads, the plot ‘is intended to subvert our comfortable expectations’, predominantly our tendency to stereotype people. A sense of mystery dominated whenever a new character appeared on stage: the fugitive, the old hermit, the little orphan, the townspeople. It was (deliberately) not always clear who these people were and what their actions were motivated by. While succeeding in creating invariably frustrated expectations, I think that this, as the raison d’être of the whole musical, failed (or perhaps succeeded too well) to achieve its desired result. The perpetual, unexpected turn of events taking place on stage was supposed to ‘cast an inquisitive eye on the failings of human nature’. Instead, the lasting impression was somewhat elusive and vague. The production had too many moments where the information provided was simply not enough to fully engage with the plot, even to simply question it. This sense of disorientation was only heightened by the instruments being so loud that sometimes the singers couldn’t be heard. Overall, the whole performance felt like a flimsy series of events set in a magnificently executed framework.
Nevertheless, some of the actors’ on-stage energy injected soul in to the performance. The chorus had a particularly vigorous presence, an outburst of collective vitality. This emerged in the spine-tingling riot scene, acted out with impressive realism. Moreover, the chorus’ singing, under the directorship of the composer himself, was simultaneously powerful and precise, making their appearances the ones I anticipated the most. Their overwhelming presence sometimes overshadowed the performance of some individual actors. These, especially the main characters, appeared to be so absorbed in the singing that at times they did not act to the fullest of their abilities. From a directorial perspective, a few awkward hands and clumsy poses could perhaps have been avoided.
This World Lousy is undoubtedly an ambitious project. It succeeded in its more technical aspects, such as score, orchestra, singers, set, and lights. It was a shame not to be able to fully engage with the plot. While raising questions about ‘inner narrative, self-doubt and personal motivations’ is one of the stated aims of the composer, I wonder whether a musical was the right way to flesh them out in the first place.