There’s a lighthouse on a barren stretch of America’s east coast that has seen more than it’s fair share of tragedy. It’s now the height of WWII and the building is inhabited by the surly Miss Lily, her Japanese housekeeper Mr Yasuhiro, and a couple of ghosts. A young boy arrives. Christopher is inquisitive and patriotic, the son of Lily’s brother who died in the war. With Lily less than enthusiastic about negotiating life with a child and the ghosts occasionally trying to lure him to a watery death, it’s understandable that Christopher acts up. But the story isn’t so much about the boy, even though it starts off as such. Part ghost story, part history lesson, part dealing with repressed feelings, and partly about learning to overcome prejudice, The Whisper House has the rumblings of a storm but never gets past the threat of rain.
Book writer Kyle Jarrow’s characters are his strong point, but he struggles with dramatic conflict despite a couple of twists and surprises. Act I only starts to pick up steam when it reaches the interval, and any momentum in the first half of the script isn’t developed in the second. There’s little sense of danger or urgency, and Duncan Sheik’s music is the same. Repetitive and pedestrian, his songs focus on narration rather than building tension. There’s plenty of telling, but little doing in both the text and the tunes. The two ghosts, who comment on the action and are vaguely explained, are particularly neglected.
Adam Lenson’s direction keeps the cast onstage the whole time. With a circular pit dominating the stage, the actors circle and spiral each other ominously but few clashes happen. The two ghosts are sullen and stroppy, more aggrieved teenagers, than ominous creatures. Lennon overuses movement, and forgets that stillness can be just as powerful. Like the script and the music, there’s little variation in pace, even in scene that serves as the climax.
The cast are excellent, though. Simon Lipkin as the sheriff and Diane Pilkington as Lily are detailed and convincing, with plenty of depth. Nicholas Goh as the mysterious Mr Yasuhiro doesn’t get as much chance to shine, but he has some great moments with Lily. Simon Bailey and Niamh Perry have cracking pop-rock voices as the ghosts and do well to hold audience attention, even though little is revealed about them and they are essentially backing singers.
With parallels to The Secret Garden (remote older relative in a strange building in the countryside, a curious child and the heavy weight of the past), the story certainly has potential – but it never reaches the depth of the Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon 1991 musical. There’s a bit of self-discovery for Lily, slightly more for Christopher and the sheriff, but otherwise The Whisper House is more empty posturing and underdeveloped subplots than action.
The Whisper House runs through 27 May.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.