Joe Nawaz finds plenty to scream about in Cahoots' nerve-shredding production
Children’s horror, kids musical, horror musical for children, kids’ musical horror. To categorise The Musician is to fetter it within parameters that immediately limit and confine what it actually is.
To explain as simply as possible, it’s very scary children’s theatre with opera music – sung by real live singers with music played by real live musicians with real live instruments. But that’s just my clumsy version of the above.
Premiering in the Old Museum Arts Centre at Christmas 2008, to some acclaim, The Musician returns as part of the Belfast Festival nipped, tucked and improved with new added horror. And it really is terrifying.
The grim tale underpinning The Musician is one familiar to those who have half an eye for the western fairytale tradition. A mysterious musician comes to town and bequeaths a young penniless orphan boy (whose only friend is a pet mouse) the gift of music. The boy turns out to have a special talent for the flute and, when spurned and treated cruelly by spiteful townsfolk, uses his power to take revenge, with a little help from his very own version of the rat pack.
So far, so traditional. This of course isn’t the Cahoots way of things. The story is almost entirely sung in an operatic style. Often discordant, frequently disconcerting and almost always loud, writer and composer Conor Mitchell’s score ratchets up the fear factor by several degrees. The sound of the voices exchanging lines with strident, blustering, lung-busting gusto accentuates the creepy aura of the play, aided and ably abetted by a spooky half-lit and gothically grey set.
The narrator, played with spindly aplomb by Toby Girling, recounts the tale, introducing us to the boy – a sweet and pitiful Stuart Matthews (the only remaining cast member from last year’s initial run). The opening sequences are fairly straightforward and kids of all ages are eased gently into the coming maelstrom by the narrator's opening and the boy’s (what else?) boyish singing.
It’s when the action gets going and we’re introduced to the Musician (the impressively named Stefan Holmstrom) and the unctuous and spiteful girl, played by Verity Parker, that the creeping sense of unease starts to take hold. As I look around the cavernous, red-lit space of the Tower Street auditorium, the fear is palpable. Kids are putting their hands up in front of their faces, looking away or smiling manically in the way that youngsters do when they’re bricking it.
And I admit that I share their apprehension. When the score really gets going and we get some heavy-duty vocal exchanges, it’s almost as much the disconcerting feel of the operatic medium as it is the unfolding story that unnerves. It makes for a powerful, nerve-shredding hour.
Throughout, Conor Mitchell and his fellow musicians play their live confection - part horror soundtrack, part musical narrative. Some of the aural effects, such as the sound of an approaching hoard of rats, are truly pant-wetting (for me at least). By the end of the show there is a palpable sigh of relief as the narrator’s secret is revealed and he wanders off to a new town with a new tale – and that’s not revealing the twist.
It is undoubtedly good to see children immersing themselves in live musical performance such as this, and while it may at times be alienating and not a little terrifying, it’s a measure of the success of The Musician that after the show, small children tentatively approach the piano to get a closer look at the instrument that was (ahem) instrumental in making this powerful and compelling noise.
The Musician runs at Tower Street Theatre, Belfast until Saturday October 31 as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's. For more information check out the Culture Live! listings.