The stage front is decorated with sheet music stands, as if expecting a troupe of musicians to take up their positions. But there is no such group waiting in the wings and these spindly apparatus remain unused, blank spaces haunted by absence. Instead just two players stride onstage. Marc Almond emerges in pitch black garments and near corpse-like pale pallor, accompanied by just the one musician who takes his place at the centre stage piano facing away from the audience. And then the performance is ready to begin.
Written by playwright Mark Ravenhill and directed by Stewart Laing, Ten Plagues is a song cycle based around the London plague of 1665 during which time one third of the populace died. It feels pertinently fitting, though clearly inadvertently, to see it performed just the day after riots have brought the most serious crisis to modern-day London in decades.
The song cycle is designed for Marc Almond who performs the full hour solo with piano accompaniment. For a certain generation, Almond will always be the Kohl-eyed pop star singing “Tainted Love” on early eighties Top of The Pops to disapproving parental gazes. Yet he has crafted out a thirty-year musical career of immense musical variation, and Ten Plagues is his first appearance at Edinburgh’s Fringe.
Almond cuts an impish, puck-like figure on stage, playing a man surviving in the midst of disease and death, watching those he loves die while searching for reasons of his own continued existence. At times he retreats to an inner indentation of the stage, a blank white room in which he struggles with inner demons while receiving ghostly visitations from those who have already departed and troubled by the festering bodies of the dead (some excellent video work from Finn Ross). During these sequences, the effect is unsettlingly claustrophobic as we watch Almond’s character within this room being tormented by his self-enforced isolation. There is always the fear of the beckoning pit.
Although a magnetic performer, Almond’s voice can be an acquired taste. The early segments of Ten Plagues find him in particularly reedy form, which is further amplified by the sometimes atonal dissonance of the music. However, by the hour’s end, there is true strength within his performance and his closing declaration of how, somehow, he still lives is tremendously powerful and moving, sung to a backdrop of modern-day London and then faced by a surprise and perfectly timed audience interaction.
Ten Plagues is a starkly brilliant piece of musical theatre. Although it is, at times, wilfully difficult while making little concession to the audience (rightly so), this is a deeply serious piece of work with cumulative power. It should leave you considering what it is to be human and to live in a time of constant pestilence and potential extinction.
Show times: 28 August, various times
Ticket prices: £6-£19