The Dark Carnival

Tramway, Glasgow

Four stars

Touring until March 16

All My Sons

Dundee Rep

Three stars

Until March 9

This year marks the 20th anniversary of innovative, Scottish theatre company Vanishing Point. Throughout its life live music has been an important component in the group’s visually sumptuous, decidedly European aesthetic.

That tradition continues with The Dark Carnival, created with Glasgow band A New International. The piece is set, primarily, beneath the ground in a Glasgow graveyard, making occasional forays into the land of the living and Heaven (which, in an unexpected break with the existential bargain, is now closed to newcomers).

Among the dead we meet the likes of wonderfully dissolute Victorian woman Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross) and Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough), who has died in childhood. In this world of higgledy-piggledy coffins and tree roots (beautifully envisioned by designer Kenneth MacLeod), writer-director Matthew Lenton’s vignettes are sewn together by Elicia Daly’s delightfully humanistic narrator.

Those who were expecting, in this collaboration between Vanishing Point and A New International, a true integration of theatrical text and live music are likely to be somewhat disappointed. The Dark Carnival is more like a pendulum swinging between a theatrical scene, in one moment, and a (nicely written, brilliantly performed) cabaret number, in the next.

Lenton’s writing itself is noticeably lopsided. Above ground (where set designer MacLeod and lighting designer Simon Wilkinson have created an impressive black box performance space), we are too little engaged by the stories of the Gravedigger (Ramesh Meyyappan) and Ghosthunting Gary (Laurie Scott).

However, in the tale of Peter (Peter Kelly), the elderly, gay man who tends daily to the grave of his lover John (Malcolm Cumming as a young man who died in a police cell in 1957, aged 19, following a homophobic sting operation) the show generates real emotional power.

The dramatic poignancy of Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons has never been in doubt. The piece is a powerful exploration of the tension between patriotism and commerce in the United States. However, it is also a classical tragedy of brutal, cosmic justice worthy of Sophocles or Euripides.

The drama centres on the family of wealthy industrialist Joe Keller, whose company supplied cracked engine cylinders to the US military during the Second World War, leading to the deaths of 21 American airmen. Although originally imprisoned for the crime, Keller was later exonerated. Meanwhile, his former business partner Steve Deever languishes in jail, having been found solely responsible.

This story of commercial skulduggery intersects agonisingly with the fact that one of Keller’s sons (wartime pilot Larry) is missing in action, presumed dead.

In the hands of a lesser dramatist Miller’s series of interwoven subplots might seem impossibly overwrought. However, crafted by, arguably, the greatest ever American tragedian, they amount to a powerful masterpiece.

That director Jemima Levick’s production fails to measure up to the play’s immense stature has nothing to do with the impressive cast or, indeed, David Paul Jones’s lovely, emotive musical score. Invidious though it is to highlight any actor among the strong ensemble, particular plaudits are due to Barrie Hunter, who gives a memorable, soul-shuddering performance as Joe Keller, a man broken by the fractured logic of dog-eat-dog capitalism.

The glaring defect of the production (as fatal as the cracks in Joe Keller’s airplane engines) is designer Alex Lowde’s horribly misconceived set. Ugly, distracting and pointless in its non-naturalism, it requires the cast to perform on a stage built of black, plastic pallets.

To either side of the stage (standing in for garden hedges) are nasty metal grates such as one might expect to find around an old community basketball court in the former Soviet Union. This catastrophic design places a series of almost insurmountable visual obstacles between the theatregoer and one of the finest American dramas of the 20th century.

For tour dates for The Dark Carnival, visit: