I wanted to love this, I really did…
Remember when Princess Diana died, and Elton John hastily rewrote the lyrics of Candle in the Wind to make it about her?
That’s what this feels like. Another jukebox musical slapped together from hits.
It was written with Irish playwright Enda Walsh – I did see his play Ballyturk, so I should have known what I was letting myself in for…
The fact that Bowie himself was involved makes it even more baffling. Apparently he gave Enda Walsh a few pages of notes, and a list of 69 songs to choose from – one can only wonder which other songs were on that list. Obviously Bowie wrote a vast amount of songs – too many to know where to start! – but most of the ones that made it into the show seemed like odd choices. So many of his songs were concerned with alienation, or insanity, or the nature of reality – surely it should have been possible to pull together something more coherent than this?
If you’re writing a musical about an alien stranded in America, then why not Starman, or Hello Spaceboy, or Loving The Alien? Why not I’m Afraid Of Americans, or Young Americans? Or anything from Outside?
I really hate it when these musicals clumsily change words to try to make the songs fit the characters.
(And in This Is Not America, idea is supposed to be sung as i-de-a, rather than i-dea, as a rhyme for America.)
I saw it at the Kings Cross Theatre, London. I didn’t realise it when I booked, but the show was taking place in a temporary theatre, that was really badly raked, so I spent a lot of time moving my head from side to side trying to see around the person in front of me – which probably didn’t help matters.
Thomas Newton, an alien stranded on Earth, sits in an apartment living on gin and Twinkies and wishing he could die. A nameless girl who may not exist wants to help him get home. His assistant Elly becomes obsessed with Mary-Lou (the woman who left him). There’s a sinister figure called Valentine. Plus there are other people and events which may or may not be in Newton’s imagination.
I did like the design of the stage. A room with two big windows (through which you could see the band) separated by a big television screen, from behind which actors could emerge. The screen had images of television Newton was watching (or possibly imagining) and other projections.
I liked the use of projections on the walls – wings at one point for Valentine, and a sequence showing Newton leaping about the room while the actor on stage was sitting still – I wish there had been more of that. And I liked the scene with the balloons.
But the colour was so drab. Beige clothes on a beige set – not very Bowie
Michael C Hall, as the alien Newton, did sing better than I was expecting, but I felt he was physically wrong for the part. Obviously you couldn’t ask any actor to become as skinny as Bowie was in the 70s, but this guy is too muscular to mistake for an ethereal alien. They could at least have given him the same hair colour as Newton in the film.
I thought Michael Esper, who played Valentine, was good – in fact, I think I would have liked to see him play Newton. And the band was very good.
But there were two scenes with flashing lights so strong I had to shut my eyes, and felt like I was going to be sick. So I don’t know what happened then – though I think someone was murdered – or possibly not… I’m also not sure what was going on when there seemed to be a load of milk on the stage – the bad rake didn’t help there.
I didn’t really care about any of the characters – unlike in the film, where you feel so sorry for Newton it’s almost difficult to watch.
And it was humourless – I mean, I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but the audience only laughed once in the whole performance I was at.
It’s hard to know what’s really happening (another song they could have used!) for a lot of the time – possibly it might make more sense if you were on drugs.
Seriously – if you’re the only alien on Earth, do you want a woman looking after you who’s clearly mentally unstable and incapable of holding down a job?
And is it really believable that her husband would become so suspicious that she was sleeping with her boss after just a couple of days?
Why does Newton think he can’t die? There’s nothing in the book or film that suggests he’s immortal.
Why does Valentine try so hard to get close to Newton?
If he is actually killing people, why doesn’t he try to kill Newton?
How does Elly know Mary-Lou used to call Newton Tommy? Can she hear his hallucinations?
Why is the musical called Lazarus? It’s not about a man who comes back from the dead. Why not call it Icarus, about a man trying to escape – Icarus being a motif in The Man Who Fell To Earth, both the book and the film?
I’m not sure who it’s aimed at. Those who haven’t read the book or seen the film won’t know what’s going on. Those who have can hardly be comparing it favourably.
There was a record player on stage, with some Bowie albums – meant as a tribute perhaps, but every time it caught my eye it just reminded me how un-Bowie the whole experience was.
I thought I might feel emotional watching this, even upset – not annoyed! There were some poignant lines, given what we now know – but by about twenty minutes in I realised it was going to be an endurance test. The show didn’t have an interval, and honestly, if it had, I probably would have left.
One final annoyance – the programme refers to Bowie’s film career. The Last Temptation of Christ, where he was on screen for about three minutes, is mentioned – but not Labyrinth, the film that for over a generation has been many people’s first introduction to Bowie. Grrrr…