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Theatre Review: Moby Dick

With themes of sustainability and an LGBTQ+ subtext, Moby Dick docked at the Grand Theatre last night for two nights only. David Simper jumped aboard.

As a reader of Herman Melville’s classic novel of whaling, obsession and leadership and a previous reviewer of a dance version of Moby Dick, also staged at the Grand Theatre, I was keen to see and review this theatrical version of a classic text.

Melville’s novel presents a surprisingly egalitarian picture of 19th century whaling life (which does not appear to be borne out in reality). The book also has a strong LGBTQ+ subtext. It is long and sprawling, including much detail about whaling, including (surprisingly) its sustainability and how long the industry could continue. The ship’s target is largely under the water and only emerges briefly into the light. For long stretches nothing really happens, apart from the characters being mad, quaint, or both. It is strangely addictive.

The first question when viewing any live production of this book is, how well will it capture the book’s essence and compact it into a concise play?

Above all I would say that this production does capture the book’s feel particularly well, drawing directly on some key scenes and of course the characters. The curtainless stage presents a set constructed mainly of scaffolding, which with the addition of various planks, transitions between a boozer and lodging house and the bow of a ship. Other planks are whaling boats, the form of a whale is formed of shaped segments. It sounds like this shouldn’t work, but it is surpisingly effective.

A single actor takes the stage and delivers the opening ‘Call me Ishmael,’ line, launching the audience into the book instantly. The ‘marriage’ scene between Queequeg and Ishmael is deftly handled. The plot quickly unfolds and we are at the delayed appearance of the disabled (by Moby Dick) and whale obsessed Captain Ahab. Despite it being obvious that great peril lies ahead, from a whale known to be more than capable of defending itself, Ahab exercises his leadership skills to achieve the crew’s blind adherence to his selfish and possibly suicidal mission to avenge himself on what should be a dumb animal, but clearly isn’t. I criticised the previous dance production for apparently portraying Ahab as fighting with his crew, missing the point that Ahab is an incredible leader, despite being insane: he doesn’t need to fight the crew, they follow despite knowing he’s leading them to their deaths.

At times crew members do challenge Ahab and the three ship’s mates. At one point a character finds a harpoon head in a whale they placed there 20 years before, claiming part of the kill. First mate Starbuck does challenge Ahab, but is overwhelmed by charisma and his own loyalty. The cast is versatile and uses women actors effectively, whereas the book has an all-male cast from the point the good ship Pequod leaves Nantucket.

Music is played live on stage and is particularly effective in setting mood, while not coming across as corny. Instruments included, guitar, dulcimer and mandolin. I wondered about choosing a song about the Franklin expedition to cheer people up, when everybody on that expedition died and both ships used sank, but overall it and other choices worked and set the scenes effectively.

Costume can always be a vexed affair, but the cleverly selected garments here fitted the bill well. Ahab’s longer coat and Starbuck’s blue suit enabled them to stand out from the crew effectively. Quick change, which seems increasingly standard in modern productions, padded out the character list, assisted by a little suspension of disbelief.

The interval, and chocolate ice cream, seemed to come very quickly and I don’t think my attention had drifted once. The second half seemed to proceed to its conclusion very quickly. Finally the psychotic whale is spotted. Note that Orcas have been biting the rudders off boats off Gibraltar and in the origin incident a large and angry whale did sink a whaling ship.

This was a clever and geninely captivating production that is well worth anyone’s time. It does capture the book, although there are variations. Minimalist scenery, props, costume, dialogue, acting skill and lighting all combine to make this a very effective production. Now I feel like re-reading.

Unfortunately there is only the 5th June 2024 performance to catch this excellent show. Book here.

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    I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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