As carbon under the right conditions might form an appealing – but not always perfect – diamond, the elements of Moonshadow combine, maybe with the odd flaw, to give a production that will have a handsome sparkle for many beholders.
It is a happy circumstance that the singer/songwriter once known as Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, had a wealth of memorable songs available when deciding to write Moonshadow with Rachel Wagstaff and Anders Albien. His back catalogue and some new additions (40 songs in total) are used to tell the story of Alaylia, a planet lit only by a moon. The residents eke out a marginal living; light and heat can only be obtained by buying ember balls from the affluent distributor Matthew & Son, also their profiteering landlords. When there’s nothing left to pawn for embers, restless youth Stormy (Gareth Keegan) can’t contain his curiosity about legends of the land of Shamsia where the sun shines. All of this is watched by a council of “Good Shadows”, who send one of their number, Moonshadow (Jolyon James), to guide Stormy to the east where the sun was last seen to rise, in search of a less grim life, for him and his planet.
As far as performances go, everyone acquits themselves well in their singing roles. More critical audience members on the opening night may have detected the odd flat note or unappealingly nasal line, but these issues seemed to disappear as the performance bore on. From my knowledge of a number of Cat Stevens’s more popular songs, the arrangements seemed pretty much what you would expect and the musicians did justice to them throughout.
Stormy’s childhood sweetheart Lisa (Gemma-Ashley Kaplan) succeeds in capturing the emotions of a young woman pressured to secure a future for her family by marrying the wealthy Pat Matthew (Blake Bowden). Bowden throws himself into songs where Pat tries to court Lisa, (such as “Who’ll be my love”) and has fun in a boy-band inspired dance number that injected an unexpected comedic element. Stormy’s mother Layla (Sally Bourne) gives an appealing performance and the concern for the absent Stormy expressed through Layla’s duet with Lisa stands out as an arresting and authentic moment; I would have appreciated some other songs having a comparable impact. The duet certainly made the song at the end of the first act look a little underpowered by comparison.
Moonshadow delivers a high standard of production values. The ensemble are synchronised in the dance routines, something that many productions can’t seem to manage. Elements of the production worked coherently, for example, Adam Gardnir’s set design allowed for movement fluidity as the dwelling they entered rotated to show characters interacting inside.
Fantasy nerds may enjoy some train-spotting of the visual elements. The velvet costumes of Matthew & Son, and Pat Matthew’s tall ginger hair and cheesy grin were reminiscent of Dr Seuss. Scenic illustrator Dogan Ür realises evocative backdrops, and images of the character Moonshadow may nod towards elements from Japanese animation. I enjoyed the technical achievement and artistry of these, and other features, such as the projected special effects, and the life-giving energy of the ember balls transported around the village.
It is unfortunate that the story itself is not the equal of other elements of this production. There are a few gaps and unclear leaps, which isn’t going to help children follow the story particularly. Some scenes were resolved quite simply and quickly at the cost of dramatic opportunity – the “House of the half-dead” stands out on this score. James maintains an appropriate otherworldliness in his characterisation of Moonshadow, but the character isn’t given very much to do, particularly in the first act. The most head-scratching thing though is why those profiteering from the embers would have a relic of Shamsia around to be seen by the oppressed peasants.
People go to theatre for different reasons, and many people will be attracted to Moonshadow by the nostalgic appeal of the songs of Cat Stevens and personal meanings associated with them. The artistic and technical creations present certainly make this outing a more involving theatre experience than many recent commercial offerings that have settled for being concerts. At times the enhancement of positive lyrics by exuberant performances created a dizzying spectacle, and from the number of people waiting at the front of the theatre after the show it is clear that many wanted more of Yusuf’s brilliance.
If you don’t have an emotional connection with the time when Cat Stevens was big and prefer a more complete realisation of a story, perhaps Moonshadow, which is not a particularly cheap night out, will not have the same clarity for you.