Set over three levels of Peckham’s popular cultural hub The Bussey Building, the Youth Music Theatre company deliver an energetic but chaotic musical hinged on a quest.
At the heart of the story is a soldier, trying to make his way to the tower and fulfil his destiny. He’s dressed in an all-black military outfit which puts him in direct contrast with the rest of the cast. Adorned in all white from head to toe, the chorus even have white netting to obscure their faces. The young female performers have their hair in braids either side, conjuring images of 1970s thriller films like The Shining, where children’s innocence can appear sinister. Undoubtedly, there’s something unsettling about a room full of performers who have their identity hidden.
On the floor of the first room, red rags are strewn across the concrete, alluding to autumn foliage, or perhaps blood. The use of space is intriguing. In the next room the theme is primarily liquid. Lighting is cooled to an icy colour and the company lay down before us under a thin cloth, creating a river.
The Dark Tower’s design is perhaps its strongest component. While the company clearly show a sense of adventure when it comes to venue, the actual content of the show feels stagnant; a young man must fulfil his destiny, conquer a monster and make it to the tower. There are moments where the cast come together and a sense of group cohesion is achieved but these are rare. The primary focus of the story is the lone boy, meaning there are ample moments when the chorus act as a canvas to the core story, moving rather awkwardly in the background. Despite the simplicity of the narrative, The Dark Tower is surprisingly murky. The clunky way in which the audience is navigated round the stiflingly hot space is distracting. We are herded like cattle by Youth Music Theatre staff, repeatedly breaking the illusion of the performance. In opposition, the performers move like a swarm of bees. Constantly moving with no clear shapes or gestures. There’s a general hum of activity that fills the length of the piece but it doesn’t really know where to land. There is nothing comfortable about inhabiting this space.
The music that chaperones the performance is a river of noise that flows throughout the entire piece. Unable to ascertain its edge or understand its texture, it hangs in the background never really taking centre stage, which is dissatisfying. The orchestra is made up a group of young musicians guided by a conductor, sitting just to the left of the main action.
Wobbly moments in performance are forgivable as the company look like they are truly giving it their all. And, given that they are performing three shows per day in suffocating heat, the young cast are demonstrating impressive levels of commitment. In moments where the chorus break free from the group and connect on a smaller scale with one or two of their peers, a sense of intimacy and real emotion is achieved.
The main downfall of The Dark Tower is that it didn’t feel like a piece by young people, nor for young people.
The Dark Tower played at the Bussey Building, Clf Art Café on August 23 and 24 August.
Image by Leanne Dixon.