The latter previewed at the NT before moving to Broadway where it picked up a Tony for best musical. Which, quite frankly, I find a mite mystifying.
Mitchell’s Hadestown began as a song cycle and that is also the case with Max Barton’s STYX (ZOO Southside, and then transferring to London’s Playground Theatre on September 2). Second Body’s debut show may look like a concert but there is plenty of theatricality in this gorgeously atmospheric, exquisitely lit, ear-tingling journey into the past and memory itself. It is inspired by Barton’s discovery, after his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, that decades before she and her husband used to run a Swiss Cottage club called the Orpheus Club.
Like a latter-day Orpheus, Barton sets out to discover what he can about the club but the moment he turns around to look for it everything disappears, like his own Gran’s memory. It is a neat conceit and one that collides with Barton’s shimmering melodies that are sometimes quietly meditative and sometimes emotionally wrenching. The band is really fab too.
The company of STYX. Photo by Wade Ranson.
What the show does with adept cunning is to tap into the way music can move us and create responses in the brain, even in a brain that has been ravaged by dementia. Part quest, part detective story it is also very thoughtful about the way the mind plays tricks on us.
But most of all this is a love story and a love letter from Barton to his grandparents, one that understands that you can’t retrieve someone from the clutches of death or dementia but you can keep them alive through our own memories of them. A lovely show, and a wise one too.
There is also a journey to the underworld in Caroline Horton’s All of Me (Summerhall, then Yard Theatre London from September 8), but there is little comfort to be found there. Nothing sweet either as there has been in previous shows including You are not Like Other Girls Chrissy, or Mess. The latter charted experiences of anorexia with unexpected toothsomeness.
This is a far bleaker and more unvarnished affair and one that begins with an apology as Horton tells us that this is not the show that she set out to make: the detritus of that show is all around the stage. It was derailed by episodes of depression.
Caroline Horton in All Of Me. Photo by Holly Revell.
Anyone hoping for another fringe show with the familiar narrative arc of triumph over adversity may well be disappointed because All of Me is far more complex and far more unsettling than that. You don’t find yourself so much watching the show as sinking down through the layers of Horton’s mind as she is gripped by depression. We come to rest in a place that you might call hell, and which makes you think of desolate echoing corridors or eerie Arctic wastes. Elena Pena’s sound design is a thing of absolute bleak, bitter beauty.
It is not exactly what you’d call enjoyable, but it is compelling and an all too rare example of a British theatre artist finding absolutely the right form to explore what in this case is not so much an idea as a state of mind, one that shifts and changes. Horton refuses to offer sweeteners instead showing that for some there is no return and for others recovery from mental illness is a slow, painful journey, one in which you keep looking back and finding yourself once again in the place where you began.