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London Theatre Reviews

Sophia Anne Caruso and Michael C. Hall/ Ph: Jan Versweyveld

LIFE ON MARS

By SAM MARLOWE

Not a conventional musical, this tribute to Bowie takes you on a freewheeling, hypnotic ride.

Is this – to quote a lyric from the divine David Bowie classic "Life on Mars" – the freakiest show? It’s certainly a divider of opinion, with some audiences, and critics, swooning at its abundant moments of aural and visual beauty, and others scoffing at its diffuse plot and skeletal script. If you are a genuine admirer of the great man, you’ll probably find the shortcomings easy to overlook, and the strengths ravishing.
 
Directed by the inventive Belgian theatre-maker Ivo van Hove, with designs by his regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, it is gorgeous to look at, like a cross between the Nic Roeg movie that partly inspired it (and in which Bowie, of course, starred) and one of Bowie’s own artful music videos. And you’d have to lack a pulse not to respond to the songs – a selection of familiar numbers, plus three new, specially written ones – which are given a rendition by the onstage band that is a thrilling blend of smoothness and edge.
 
Enda Walsh’s dialogue, on the other hand, is pretty clunky, and to make sense of the story’s meanderings, you have to be prepared to go with its dreamlike, nebulous flow. Yet if you do that, you’ll find this a potent enchantment – a poignant farewell from an extraordinary artist, and one that resonates, shapeshifts and insinuates itself into your imagination long after the final, plaintive moments fade.
 
Those familiar with Roeg’s film, and the Walter Tevis sci-fi novel on which it was based, will remember Thomas Jerome Newton, the thin, pale, flame-haired alien who came to Earth seeking water for his drought-stricken home planet. He had a love affair with earthling Mary-Lou, discovered booze, and became stranded due to human cruelty, stupidity and greed. In this sequel, Newton (Michael C. Hall) – immortal and physically ever youthful, while those around him age – is holed up in a Manhattan apartment, losing his mind. He subsists on breakfast cereal, Twinkies and, above all, gin; he dreams of his faraway home and family; and he remembers the long-since departed Mary-Lou.
 
Roeg’s Newton was often seen watching multiple TV screens, each showing a different scene – and Van Hove’s production has a similar frenetic, kaleidoscopic character. Hall’s Newton is attended, in his torment, by a young assistant, Elly (Amy Lennox), who, in her own search for love and in flight from her unhappy marriage, becomes fixated with him and begins to inhabit the character of Mary-Lou, who appears in flickering video imagery, blue-haired, smiling, dressed in a silken slip.
 
Other splintered characters glide in and out, too. There’s a ghostly, white-haired, barefoot Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), who seems to be a sort of novice angel. There’s an old business associate, and a sexed-up couple who get their groove on to “All the Young Dudes.” There’s Valentine (Michael Esper), a black-clad, Mephistophelean killer, whose sinister appearance amid billowing inky clouds and black balloons induces shivers. There are starbursts, a dancing geisha girl, a cartoon rocket ship and a glowing New York cityscape. It’s a parade of nightmare, fantasy and delusion, the product of alcohol, insanity and unhappiness, not a conventional or even an especially coherent narrative perhaps, but more an intense, hypnotic psychic mood, a series of powerful impressions.
 
Search for concrete meaning in all this, and you’re likely to become as frustrated as you might be hunting for the literal in Bowie’s lyrics. You’d also be wasting your time – because the pleasures of Lazarus rely on a willingness to allow it to work its particular, freewheeling magic. And the performances are close to sublime. Hall is a magnetic Newton, and while he never impersonates Bowie there’s more than enough of the star’s essence in his performance, and in his singing voice, to make him uncannily compelling. Impossible, after all, to separate Bowie from a story to which he so obviously had an intimate connection; impossible, particularly after his death, not to be moved by it.
 
Lennox plays Elly with a contained anguish and ferocity, and makes fine work of reinterpreting the well-loved "Changes." Esper is riveting as the ominous Valentine, and Caruso, still a teenager, has a thoroughly unnerving presence as the celestial Girl, at once vulnerable, innocent and somehow knowing, and with a huge, heart-rending voice that really does seem to soar out into space. You have to want to take this strange trip, and you have to be prepared to trust in it. Those who do were probably in no doubt, anyway, that this starman always could, and always will, blow our minds.