The Dark Carnival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
***** (5 stars)
Following a superb exploration of the effects of dementia on a relationship, the Traverse plays host to an equally brilliant revelation of the hitherto unknown ‘world beneath the ground’ where we, the newly-dead, are introduced to our new lives and taught a number of important lessons.
Coffins are piled higgledy-piggledy among roots growing down into the earth: some of their sides are open and we can see the corpses they contain, all lying in the stillness of death… From a brightly-lit doorway ghostly smoke issues and a form emerges – a woman who greets us and welcomes us to the necropolis.
She is our guide and instructor in this new and unexpected situation, engaging with us and making dreadful jokes in rhyming verse before summoning the band – the dead, musicians, whisky – what can possibly go wrong? Biff, who bears an uncanny resemblance in face and manner to The Joker, leads his band in songs with macabre words – the joie de mort and despair – and catchy melodies. As the liquor flows we begin to get to know the inhabitants of the cemetery and learn how they died and how they cope with their current situation. Trapped within the earth, neither in heaven nor in hell, they – and we – can watch the living as they visit the graves of their loved ones or, like Ghost-Hunting Gary, try to record evidence of communication from Beyond to post on their YouTube channel, while a council worker who only communicates in sign language passes through, keeping an eye on things.
Young John died when he was still a teenager: why does an elderly gentleman visit his grave with a bunch of lilies every morning at eleven? Why is the Major taking time away from the band to practise being a ghost? The Dark Carnival people come together to greet the new arrival – young Annie, who emerges from her coffin bewildered to find herself newly dead but still in some sort of life. A fag-smoking, booze-swigging angel reveals that Heaven has closed its gates; the feisty and irrepressible Mrs Jack reveals that it’s possible to do a deal with the Demons Down Below to get serious whisky, but that we really don’t want to go down there – so what happens to us? Why do some of us disappear into black cloud holes? Are we just going to accept these mysteries, or are we going to do something about it????
There’s a fabulously inventive set, a wonderfully memorable assortment of vivid characters, and fantastic music brilliantly played by band A New International. Trumpet, trombone, guitars, keyboard, accordion and violin weave their insidious way round haunting melodies with delectably mordant lyrics, with lead singer and song-writer Biff Smith obviously relishing every minute in the spotlight. There’s a witty, delightfully gruesome, deeply moving and at times metaphysically challenging script conceived, written and directed by Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton.
There’s much to reflect on in an extraordinarily entertaining show, which evoked much laughter and prolonged applause. it’s dazzling: move heaven and earth to see it!
The Dark Carnival, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ended transfers to Dundee Rep 13th-16th March, for tickets go to: https://www.dundeerep.co.uk/event/dark-carnival