“If these walls could speak, they’d probably scream”
It’s not every day that you get an invitation to a musical set in Azerbaijan so I was certainly intrigued to hear about Midnight, receiving a workshop presentation by Aloff Theatre and directed by Matthew Gould in the cosy space of the studio at the St James Theatre. With book and lyrics by Timothy Knapman and music and lyrics by Laurence Mark Wythe (probably best known for Tomorrow Morning), the musical is based on the play Citizens of Hell by Azerbaijani writer Elchin (who for a day job just happens to be the Deputy Prime Minister there!).
Set in Baku in 1937 with the Soviet Union in gripped in the midst of Stalin’s Great Terror, every knock on every door brings with it the fear of being disappeared by the NKVD. And this New Year’s Eve is no different as a husband and wife pace about their flat, debating how – or if – to celebrate when friends and neighbours have been tortured and executed. When the knock finally comes, it isn’t necessarily who they’re expecting but the eventual chilling realisation of who their visitor is and the chaos he can unleash is even worse.
Structured as a three-hander supported by an actor-musician ensemble (they were just singing today), Knapman and Wythe aim for a fearsome claustrophobia with the action never leaving the living room of the couple’s modest apartment and one can see working most effectively. In a society made toxic by secrecy and spies, the visitor’s brutal truth-spilling turns the spotlight of suspicion within these four walls and naturally, there’s many a skeleton to tumble out of each of their closets, many a painful revelation to be exposed before the clock strikes 12.
Balancing out this almost demonic darkness is a wickedly dastardly sense of humour and an enigmatically fantastical edge which Gould’s direction manages to toy with even in this workshop setting. Wythe’s score cannily dips in and out of period detail – ‘Let Yourself Go’ is a flapper’s delight and the humorous ‘We Said, You Said’ recalls Kander and Ebb – and for every impassioned lament, ‘Let Me Sleep’ is particularly beautiful as sung here by Kiara Jay, there’s a scabrously funny number, ‘The Secret Policeman’s Lament’ seems destined for many a cabaret songbook.
The interplay between Man, Woman and Visitor also resonates strongly, particularly as the balance is always shifting. Nicolas Colicos’ Visitor is devilishly good fun and has all the best lines, Rebecca Treahearn imbues her part with grace and grit – her gorgeously delivered ‘Papa’ was a highlight for me – as the increasingly pragmatic Woman and David Hunter’s Man is an ideal counterpart with his deceptive slipperiness initially masked by his charming ways.
It will be interesting to hear the score as intended by the stipulated actor-musician ensemble as opposed to the piano-playing of Musical Director James Cleeve here but even on this rendition, it is clear to see the potential here. A couple of aspects need a little work, the plot point about her father for one, and any production would need to strive to keep the requisite dark intensity and intimacy bubbling throughout but I don’t think it will be too long before we see Midnight again.