Lit by a solitary halogen bulb, a crazed genius has somehow created an entertainment experience by crossbreeding dystopian science fiction with prog rock and then raised it solely by beating it round the head with the UKIP manifesto. We have been granted access to the resulting creation. Part gig, part play, mostly apocalypse; this is Songs for the End of the World. It is a production for the Brighton Festival commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre with support from Kneehigh, Tobacco Factory Theatres, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was staged at the Theatre Royal, unsurprisingly, in Brighton.
We are introduced to this production’s new world by a flickering projector that casts a fuzzy image on the stage. It takes the form of an old cold war propaganda film, telling us of the wonders of “New Albion”. This place is the land that was once Britain, dragged down into the dirt for an untold time under the control of the mega corporation – New Global. The aesthetic here is instantly recognisable to long-time fans of the Fallout franchise, but with a distinctly British twist. The sense of hopelessness is palpable from the beginning. The projector is old and the sound is cracking and the cast silently drift onto the stage towards their instruments as if they are taking positions on the assembly line.
The music begins as we hear from Jim Walters (Dom Coyote), an astronaut lost in space. He is playing music through his communications set to try to see if he isn’t the only man left alive. It is almost as if Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has taken shape and form on the stage whilst still remaining a song. If that sounds strange, it’s because it is. While all pieces are original, there are heavy and clear influences from the likes of Pink Floyd and the aforementioned David Bowie. However, despite sounding familiar, it is always slightly darker, more morose and gloomy than its inspirations. It’s like seeing all your favourite artworks burned and slashed but still hanging on a thread and this leads to Songs for the End of the World conjuring a sense of familiarity tinged with a quiet horror. This extends throughout the show, and while almost all of the performance plays out in song there are fleeting moments of dialogue that delve further into the world of New Albion. It is a place where little old ladies coo about the cosy gated community of Ashley Coombe whilst hissing under their breath that foreigners are trying to spoil it. It is a land where gigantic corporations don’t just squeeze around the law, but become the law themselves. New Global owns New Albion. Like all good dystopian science fiction, it’s not so unthinkable, just what happens if a whisper of “what if” becomes a shout.
This is where we meet our main character, Jim Walters. Dom is also the the co-creator of the entire production, alongside Michael Vale and writer Tom Penn. Jim is set to be the first man on Mars, though he hardly seems to understand or grasp anything that is going on. He was told to jet off into Space for the hopes of colonising Mars and that his wife will join him soon. Instead of dialogue the audience is presented with songs from all the characters that appear on stage. This effectively turns Songs for the End of the World into a series of musical monologues, marauding between different minds that are all trying to find a scrap of meaning in New Albion. Once Jim reaches the outskirts of Earth’s atmosphere, he looks down upon Earth and instead of seeing the shiny blue marble we are used to, he is met with the entire globe suddenly erupting in nuclear fire. We transition back down to Earth to the small community of Ashley Coombe. We experience the lives of those in this small town moments before the nuclear apocalypse. A young rebel (Milly Oldfield) on the radio who blasts out a thumping punk anthem about breaking free from New Albion. From an outcast living on his own in the end of days (Ted Barnes), to a hate preacher delivering a sermon (John Biddle), we hear from each character, and each has their own musical style which reflects their view of the world. Subsequently, each foray into their mind makes the world of New Albion seem ever more realised. I cannot call this a musical as that simply doesn’t capture what this is and has too cheery a set of connotations. What this is in fact is a great way of experiencing theatre constructed through hearing the tragedy and feelings of a set of characters through the medium of song. The actors pick up their instruments, face the stage and sing their guts out. It is some form of concert-theatre.
However, this rather unique style of performance does have its downsides. Whilst we do see into the minds of our characters, there is quite a lack of dialogue exchange. For example, our main character Jim sings of how he misses his wife, but we never see an interaction between them or catch a single glimpse of their relationship. His wife, Mary (Amanda Dal) is however, killing it on the drums at the back of the stage. She just waves from the drum set at one point to Jim. The plot balances fully upon the songs in the show and in doing so we miss out on some of the finer details of body language and communication between actors that might be present in musicals or standard theatre. However, if the goal of such artwork is to allow us to feel and understand the situation that is being crafted on stage, Songs for the End of the World does an excellent job.
It is just a pity that it ends just as things begin to take shape. The nukes begin to fly and it is revealed that this is a ploy by big corporations to force people to buy tickets to Mars to seek safety. The only survivors are the characters whose songs we heard earlier. They gather around a radio and hear the voice of an astronaut lost in space and here it ends. It seemed there was so much more for this world and these characters to give and so much more to see. What happens to our punk rocker? What happens to the hate preacher? Whilst there is an accompanying graphic novel and already plans of a sequel set 1000 years in the future, it appears we will never see the stories of these characters resolved on stage. Songs for the End of the World sits in a rather charming yet odd place. It flies and flirts through themes and concepts with such speed that it unfortunately never fully engages with any of them. We see the greed of corporations, the danger of xenophobia, and the confusion and loneliness of a world with these things at its core. Despite what seems like a delicious premise, we see these ideas and then rapidly move to another place and a new song. Once we finally have seen all the characters and actually grasp how it all comes together, it ends.
I wanted more and I wish I got it on stage. This is a charming and intriguing piece with heartfelt and well-crafted original music. It crafts an atmosphere of a ragged and desperate nation. The smoke creeps in on the stage and lights shine dimly on our jump-suited cast members. You feel their confusion, their rage, and their sadness. Bursts of individuality and creativity run throughout this play in abundance. Throughout the duration of the performance, the actors unzip parts of their jumpsuits to reveal symbols of their ideals beneath: from a David Bowie T-Shirt to a crucifix. However, it is a battle to fight for further meaning in the incredibly brief story present within the play. So much time and care is placed into world building (and subsequent world destroying) that there is no time to explore a narrative and weave a tale that takes place in New Albion. Despite any shortfalls in depth, Songs for the End of the World remains an evocative and eclectic performance that is accessible and enjoyable for all. Dom Coyote and his band, the Bloodmoneys, have crafted a very entertaining fusion of music and theatre. Brimming with ideas and packed with talented musicians playing original songs, and their vision of a British apocalypse will definitely leave its mark on your memory.
You can listen to and buy all the music from Songs For the End of the World as an album here.