This Sunday afternoon, Kath and I went to see the last performance of “Lazarus”, the musical created by David Bowie and playwright Enda Walsh. You probably know that this was first performed in New York in December 2015, not long before Bowie’s death. Along with the album “Blackstar” it was his parting gift to the world.
Bowie’s track record in drama – theatre and film – is interesting, but a bit mixed. It’s fair to say his iconic status in today’s culture is down to his music – and the theatricality that went with that. And “a bit mixed” is the best way to sum up the critics’ reaction to “Lazarus”, especially here in London, which is, perhaps, reluctant to give rave reviews to established artists of any sorts, especially those trying something different.
I hadn’t really bothered with the reviews, so I went along today with an open mind. And a positive one, for two reasons. First, the obvious – my love of Bowie’s music and the central place it occupies in my musical journey. Second, a recent BBC documentary about Bowie’s last five years had featured rehearsals for “Lazarus”, and they looked interesting and whetted the appetite.
The production was on at the Kings Cross Theatre, which I think may be temporary, but was rather good. A decent bar and a big space, with plenty of leg room. I read afterwards that there were 960 seats – it would make a great concert venue. A short walk from the station; part of the growing development that has transformed the area from scuzz city to a cultural and dining/ drinking space really worth visiting.
And so to the play. Well, the plot was, shall we say, obscure, enigmatic? It centred on Thomas Newton, the alien from “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Years on from where the film of the mid-70s left us, he is trapped in is New York apartment, subsisting on gin and Twinkies, and lamenting both his lost family and departed earthling lover Mary-Lou. Onto this scene comes a host of characters: some real, some inside his head. The distinction is never clear – deliberately not so, I would say. Quite possibly they are all a figment of his imagination.
The central figures are a girl who is clearly inside his head, and a young woman, Elly, who appears to be a maid or PA, but transforms herself into a version of his old lover, Mary-Lou, blue hair and all. The girl doesn’t even know her own name until the end. She offers hope about a return to his planet, but not really. Elly is having marital problems and seems to wish to become Newton’s new Mary-Lou, but realises the futility of it as the drama unfolds. There is a confusing character called Valentine, who assumes importance, although I was never clear why. Again, was it in the head, or real?
So it is a plot about confusion, love, lost souls, alienation. All the things that informed Bowie’s music, of course. And it is the music, along with the powerful video imagery, that makes the show a truly captivating experience. There are 17 songs, plus a snippet of “Sound and Vision”, and they span Bowie’s career. The obvious spacey ones like “Starman” or “Space Oddity” are missing; instead this is a selection which Bowie must have felt reflected those themes I mentioned just now. They are brilliantly sung by the cast; and the band, which lurks, often in near-silhouette, behind a perspex screen, plays them beautifully.
They aren’t just recreations of the originals – they are re-imagined for the play and the characters who sing them. Michael.C.Hall, who plays Newton, looks nothing like Bowie, but he has got the voice nailed down. The two female leads, Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) and Amy Lennox (Elly) take on “Life on Mars” and “Changes”, respectively, with a style of their own, which really works. There are so many great renditions of old, and obscure, favourites. “It’s no Game”, from “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” encapsulates Newton’s turmoil brilliantly at the beginning. “Where Are We Now?” reeks with sadness and nostalgia. “Absolute Beginners” becomes a disorientated love song. “All the Young Dudes” is anthemic, but with a misplaced triumphalism. Elly laments her messed up life powerfully in “Always Crashing the Same Car”. And, of course, “Heroes”, played as a subdued and then anguished personal reflection by Newton and the Girl, as he fades from life (it seems), is a fitting and beautiful end to the play.
Maybe it was seeing it in the afternoon, but I came out feeling quite overwhelmed by the sensory experience. Discombobulated. The awesome music, the arresting visuals. The style. Never mind the plot, this was an experience! And one I’m glad I didn’t miss – thank you to my work colleague Matthew for that. It took me a while to come down. Those sniffy reviews I read when I got home – well, I think they weren’t getting what this play is really about in the end.
Which, for me, is a message from David Bowie as he left this world. This is my music – and your music. Ever-changeable, ever-questioning. Designed to inspire feelings of so many kinds, to create so many meanings, and to allow people to shape those to their own lives and experiences.
The full setlist is here. And there are some good photos on the official website.