Concocted in the deliciously macabre depths of a graveyard, The Dark Carnival is a sumptuous exploration of the merriments of the afterlife. When the Angels decide to close Heaven so that they may have unshared access to its glories, it seems the dead are left in limbo. But when the whiskey is flowing and the band is playing – who would choose to reside anywhere other than the soil?
The plot follows the narrative of the youthfully-dead John (Malcolm Cumming), whose untimely death is devastatingly clouded by historical legislation that outlawed his love for then-boyfriend: now, an old man who still makes daily visits to John’s grave. Guided by the sharp-tongued but ultimately compassionate dealings of Mrs. Mark (Ann Louise Ross), John enlists the help of new resident Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough) to make contact with the world above and bring closure to the man whose unfounded guilt has haunted him for a lifetime.
Kenneth MacLeod’s set design is as morbid as it is delectable, presenting the soil as a topsy-turvy amalgamation of Victorian steampunk coffins and household ornaments. High above the cold depths of the earth stands a neon-rimmed window, affording glimpses into the living world and the heights of Heaven as though through a TV screen. The grandeur of the set comes not only from its size: instead, there are a myriad of interesting and unusual levels that make for a particularly interesting use of staging. Accompanied by Simon Wilkinson’s’ equally innovative lighting design, the entire production is enchanted by a hauntingly intriguing aesthetic.
Biff Smith has a great deal of expectation preceding him – as the leader (and songwriter) of the soil’s resident band, he is tasked with bringing life to an otherwise particularly dead locality. His headship is at once charismatic and unnerving: with his purple-lipped jazzy vocals contextualising our induction into the afterlife and the cadaverous ventures of its inhabitants.
The Dark Carnival is a masterful representation of the power of gig theatre; guiding us into the dark and cobwebbed ground below which we stand. Defiant in its morbidity and triumphant in its execution – it would seem that perhaps death isn’t the end, after all.
The Dark Carnival runs at the Traverse Theatre until Saturday 9th March 2019.