This review is based on the performance at 1pm on Saturday, October 5th at the Peninsular Theatre in Woy Woy on the Central Coast. Featured image, and others throughout, lovingly gleaned from the production’s official page.
Based on the David Lindsay’s 1920 novel, Phil Moore’s new musical A Voyage to Arcturus is a thrilling and bombastic rumination on the nature of death, and a thought-provoking examination on good, evil, and how a different set of eyes can reframe them.
This production, funded by a Creative Enterprise Grant from the Central Coast Council as well as some extra support by a private investor, served as a proof of concept mounting (“more than a workshop, not quite a full production”, to quote the website), which was filmed in the hopes of creating a composite recording of the performances that can be sent to producers around the world who may be interested in staging it.
The titular Arcturus is a binary star system, and the action follows earthling Maskull’s journey on the planet Tormance, not unlike Candide’s picaresque, episodic structure. In his quest to find the meaning of life, and also a way off the planet, Maskull meets various aliens that have various impacts on him, each representing a form of philosophy or other such school of thought that Lindsay sought to satirise or deconstruct.
What’s it all for? Why are we here? What happens when we die?
Along the way, he is haunted by the wily Krag, who is said to be the devil himself by the people of Tormance that Maskull meets, and is supported by the charming Seraphina, a plucky young girl who is curious to see if Maskull can meet Krag’s challenge.
Moore’s blending of the philosophical value of the novel with the need to structure the story musically has been a successful effort, on the whole. In fact, this was an excellent production, featuring plenty of costumes, makeup, immersive projections, and real set pieces (whenever needed), all developed with care and great design smarts. Again, more than a workshop, but not quite a full production.
The design team for this production included Tina A. Wake for costume and wig design, Amanda Thompson for props and set pieces, and Central Coast Dance founder and director Krin Bajough’s choreography, all under Moore’s direction.
We open on a very cerebral point with the company number “Everyone’s Name is I”, a tongue-in-cheek meditation on identity and self-awareness. On the whole, a good start, even if it was a bit broader and general when remembered alongside the more specific character numbers and philosophy work to come.
After an introduction to the charlatans and soothsayers that the high society of Earth (specifically, modern-day Newcastle) are drawn to, as well as Seraphina (Mikayla Burnham) giving him the call to adventure, we meet Krag (Phil Moore), who tells Maskull that he shall soon walk in “Another Man’s Shoes”, an 70s rock number.
Maskull (Tom Kelly, The Wiz) lands on Tormance, is abandoned by Krag, and soon realises his blood is too heavy on the planet, and he cannot move until he is given a blood transfusion by the pacifist Joiwind (Grace Marie Oldfield). She represents maternity for Maskull, who is but an infant to the ways of Tormance. Oldfield sings, in a lush soprano, of how her deed was “No Sacrifice”, and the indelibility of her influence on Maskull is a particularly memorable way to begin the plot of his journey.
It is her more classical stylings, following something with the heavier style of Krag’s number, that shows Moore’s skill for blending style in a seamless and harmonious way, as neither seemed out of the place with the other so near to it. It is the construction of the world, and of its musical vocabularies, that give the piece its strength.
Maskull goes on to meet other complex characters, such as the tough Oceaxe (Daphne Rivers) and her nasty husband Crimtyphon (Jerome Varlet-Green), who has hexed Fature (Liam Faulkner-Dimond) to slowly transform into a tree; Crimtyphon’s other wife Tydomin (Kasey McKenzie), who sings the haunting and beautiful “A World With Two Suns” (and sings it well!); laid-back fisherman Polecrab (Faulkner Dimond) and his wife, Gleameil (Rivers), who yearns for adventure; stoic monk Corpang (Varlet-Green), who worships three mysterious deities in the depths of Threal; and the mysterious, cursed temptress Sullenbode, whose love entrances and distracts Maskull.
Other musical moments that stood out were “Panawe’s Story”, as told by Joiwind’s husband (played enchantingly by Lindsey Stillwell); “The Slave’s Lament”, sung by Fature and Crimtyphon; and, my personal favourite numbers, “It Was A Long Time Ago”, sung by Polecrab, and the powerful cri de cœur “It Calls to Me”, sung by Gleameil.
To this production’s credit, the double-ups were done very well and considerately, with particular emphasis placed on the thematic importance of Oldfield’s characters through the use of omitting her in the scenes between. We understand Maskull’s attraction to Sullenbode, as there is no confusion about her parallel to Joiwind.
Critiques that I can make all stem from one core aspect, and that is the issue of length. The show, running at around three hours with intermission, is long. While the litany of new and exciting characters to explore offer a reprieve and fresh aspect to revitalise our attention, there is plenty that could be pared down that would still manage to say the same thing. Moore has done a fantastic job of distilling the material into a musical, even conflating characters into logical composite characters, but there is still a lot that I imagine would have more relevance and payoff in the novel than does here, such as Panawe and Polecrab’s stories, which set a fantastic tone and were well-performed, but perhaps take up precious real estate in the runtime.
The music, played as backing tracks, is very well-done, but I cannot help but feel as though it was perhaps too gratuitously assigned to characters. Despite my love for the number, Polecrab perhaps did not need an entire number to himself, only to have his wife illustrate what would drive the next stage of the plot in a number of her own, and then again in a duet with Maskull. I imagine some smart counterpoint work to illustrate Polecrab and Gleameil’s conflicting desires would be the answer to this, as well as some other conflations and truncations.
In terms of the libretto, I liked Moore’s approach to lyricism. Some successive rhyming could be teased out for true high calibre linguistic fun, which you all know I love, but I did love his use of recurring notions and themes, and indeed motifs in the music. I would, however, propose some sort of tighter through-line to really guide the piece and to help establish where Maskull is now philosophically, as his songs seemed to be more reactive to how the literal journey was progressing, almost an inappropriate operatic approach to reflection rather than that of musical theatre.
All in all, I suppose I rather liked A Voyage to Arcturus. It was something completely new: a very original blending of musical styles, a wonderful tale featuring both comedy and tragedy, a satisfying examination of philosophy that was not too dense, all presented in a very tonally balanced progression through story and song.
From one original musical workshopper to another, I’d like to congratulate Moore for this undertaking, and I really do hope to see A Voyage to Arcturus again someday soon.