Photo by: Annabel Vere Photo by: Annabel Vere

Review: Death Takes a Holiday at the Charing Cross Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

It’s 1921 and, after four years of war and a flu pandemic, Death is pretty fed up with his (for lack of a better word) life. Intrigued as to why humans fear him so much, he decides to take the weekend off and spend it with the Lamberti family to study their ways. Under the guise of the Russian prince Nikolai Sirki, Death learns about life as he falls in love with the Lambertis’ daughter Grazia.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the similarities with Meet Joe Black, which was adapted from the same 1924 play by Alberto Casella, La Morte in Vacanza. The major difference between Death Takes a Holiday and its predecessors is that, in this incarnation, it’s a musical! And I can assure you that that’s not as weird as it sounds. For starters (and despite the sound of it), it’s a hopelessly romantic story, which now comes with a suitably soaring score thanks to composer and lyricist Maury Yeston.

The singing is truly excellent across the board, although some of the lyrics are so clunky I’m not sure they needed that level of projection or enunciation. For example, a particular cringe-worthy moment occurs when Grazia’s sister-in-law Alice, singing about her dead husband, opts to call him ‘Grazia’s brother’ rather than his actual name in order to get the correct amount of syllables for the line. There are some good acting performances as well: Chris Peluso is part dorky, part sinister as Death, while James Gant as butler Fidele provides some much appreciated comic relief.

Still, the evening does drag a little. While the premise of the story has the potential to develop into either a profound look at the meaning of life or a good bit of absurdist fun, it tries to do a bit of both and therefore commits to neither. It certainly could be a lot snappier, and there’s not much to look at in terms of set either. Most of the action comes, in fact, from a largely pointless to-ing and fro-ing with chairs.

Death Takes a Holiday is definitely not without its faults, but it is a special snowflake in the sometimes same-y genre of musical theatre. Yeston’s score has some proper Sondheim moments, and did I talk about the singing? It deserves another mention, it really was that good. It’s not going to be the cheeriest night you’ve had at the theatre, but that’s alright. I’ve always felt that we needed to contemplate the meaning of life, the universe and everything via musical theatre more often anyway.

Death Takes a Holiday is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 4 March 2017