In the Italian countryside circa 1920s, some cheerful socialites are buoyed by the engagement of Corrado (Ashley Stillburn) to our female protagonist, Grazia (Zoe Doano). Headed for Grazia’s parents’ villa, where they all live, a ‘shadow’ on the road sends them into a spin and Grazia is thrown from the car, where Death (Chris Peluso) is waiting for her. Miraculously though, struck by something in her spirit, Death finds himself unable to take her soul. To satisfy his curiosity about human life, Death decides to take the eponymous holiday, spending the weekend with the family disguised as a Russian prince, and informing Grazia’s father, strong patriarch Duke Vittorio Lamberti, played with great presence by Mark Inscoe, that a betrayal of his secret will bring grave consequences. Of course, Death and Grazia then fall madly in love.

A new musical with book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, and a score and lyrics from Maury Yeston – it’s gothic Phantom of the Opera, without the nastiness, plus a handful of humour. The premise is brilliant, the dark, brooding atmosphere perfectly built, but ultimately there are too many plot holes and superfluous tangential subplots to make it a dynamic show. For example, Grazia has just got engaged and has nearly died. Later that night she comes downstairs, feels on top of the world and on first glimpse of a handsome man decides that she doesn’t want to be engaged any more.

Now, it’s not a show which allows these flaws to ruin the enjoyment, but it does lead to your attention wandering on occasion, and with a running time of over two hours, this does make it drag a little. However, as long as you are willing to not take it too seriously, and not dwell on the missed opportunity of a really interesting character study of Death, then you do get some entertaining if predictable forbidden-love story of the dark variety. The score and songs seem to lack variation, but do keep a lovely atmosphere going throughout. The set is basic apart from some gothic columns, meaning there’s lots of cast moving around chairs in funky choreography. The costumes, on the other hand, are spectacular, and there’s some lovely set piece lighting, particularly in the use of spotlights.

Really, though, there is one thing that keeps your attention, and that is the voices of the two protagonists. Their singing voices, particularly that of Doano, are stunning. More than that, though, they both bring brilliant characterisation to their singing, in a way that I have rarely seen before, in that it is not about their energy, but subtle, beautifully-controlled gestures and facial expressions. Doano brings real emotion to her delivery without any melodrama, and Peluso portrays a wistfulness and a difference in rhythm to the others, bringing to the fore Death’s curiosity about the world around him. While there are a couple of underwhelming performances, there are some lovely turns from the supporting cast, with particular mention going to a wonderful, understated role as comic foil from James Gant as Fidele, the butler, Anthony Cable as Dario the dapper, worldly-wise old doctor with a glint in his eye, and a little gem from Sophie-May Feek as the confident, coquettish maid, Sophia. Their efforts ensure that you remain engaged, when the script and lyrics, which entertain but certainly don’t sparkle, leave your attention in danger of wondering.

Overall, then, a real mixed bag. A brilliant idea, though not quite fully brought to life, but one that takes a traditional type of story and creates a musical that does not blaze any trails, and appears to leave something to be desired. However, some outstanding performances and strong production elements mean it’s at least enjoyable while you work it all out.

Death Takes A Holiday is playing at Charing Cross Theatre until March 4. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton