Bowie & Mercury Rising is promoted as a “concert [celebrating] the music and lives of Bowie and Mercury through the eyes of a London actress, searching for hope after the passing of David Bowie. Through her journey, we re-imagine the life and times of these two much-loved icons, through music and sublime dance”.
Zimbabwean born, Melbourne-based Thando Sikwila is assumedly filling the shoes of this London actress, though her accent is as Australian as it gets – even distractingly so in the opening number “Life on Mars?” on words such as “focus” and “those”.
As the narrative goes on – quite loosely – Sikwila implies that Bowie and Mercury are recent role models to her, a thought seemingly at odds with the idea that this character is struggling after the passing of Bowie in early 2016.
Upon entering the space, there weren’t any ushers on opening night, leaving attendees guessing where their seats were. This initial confusion characterises the experience of Bowie & Mercury Rising; an early omen of the night to come.
As you can see from the photo, it’s a weirdly disjointed stage experience. There are three talented performers essentially presenting what could be three or four different shows that do not belong together.
Warren Wills has devised, scripted, directed and made the musical arrangements for Bowie & Mercury Rising, calling on Jess Mortlock to have her debut as a credited choreographer. Thando Sikwila sings these prolific songs and speaks Wills’ script, while Jason Bovaird contributes lavish lighting design.
Firstly, this script is jarring. It’s preachy. It’s full of entirely irrelevant jokes, quotes from various influential personalities and information about Bowie and Mercury that most of the audience for a show with this title would likely know already. Yes, it’s horrible that they’re both dead. Yes, they were both visionaries and unique. Yes, they were daring and original and “we’ll never see the likes of them again”. But the show’s premise leaves audiences expecting more than this repeated over and over.
The script is so desperately trying to sound relevant and knowledgeable – with the odd joke to try and break up its preachy-vibe – that it’s more often unnecessary and belittling than aiding any sort of narrative the show is trying to present.
Jason Bovaird’s lighting makes up for the lack of set design. At times, his design can feel a bit too big for the space that it’s in and the occasional transition can seem too sudden. However, this can mostly be overlooked, resulting in an impactful and concert-like atmosphere, reminiscent of Queen’s early days.
There’s no arguing that Warren Wills is an incredible pianist. His musical interludes are particularly impressive. “Under Pressure” is especially creative. Some of the compositions, however, leave much to be desired. The dramatic pauses in the original songs are there for a reason, they allow the impact and power to be felt. Removing them in songs like “Who Wants to Live Forever” made the songs feel diminished. Bowie’s “Lazarus” somehow lost its intrigue.
“Let’s Dance” was reimagined into various dance styles and Mortlock encapsulates this well, leaning on the imagery and sexualisation of the Thin White Duke to make her vision realised. Mortlock’s choreography and dancing adds a captivating visual element to this show throughout, utilising props and costume to bring movement and life to the stage.
The projections just outright do not need to be there. They detract from the impact that the show could have. Perhaps there could have been simple background landscapes if anything. To put this criticism in perspective, there were clowns on screen during “The Show Must Go On”, and not just clowns, Stephen King’s It was on screen. The transitions between slides were too sharp, and are distracting as you try to work out the meaning or importance of the imagery. More often than not, the image on the screen was entirely contradictory to what was being presented.
The projections make a mockery of the songs and the talent on stage. To go from Spiderman to Thatcher and back to dolphins is grating. For Sikwila to sing “Ground Control to Major Tom” and for the slide to say “Major Tom to Ground Control” is straight-up confusing.
It’s clear this audience tried to get into this mood of things initially, singing along to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “We Will Rock You” when prompted, but the energy fell in the room. The show is a disjointed presentation of what Bowie and Freddie mean. A stripped back version of this show that really focused on these new iterations of the songs would be beneficial and would find its home happily at Melbourne Fringe.
It’s daunting to put together a tribute to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. But put simply, this show is trying to be too many things at once. Get rid of the dancing, projector, light show and strange script, and let Wills and Sikwila sit down for an intimate evening of stripped back compositions of songs we know and love.
Bowie & Mercury Rising is on at Chapel off Chapel until Sunday 30 July 2017.