Silence!: The Musical
The unauthorised parody of Silence of the Lambs, book by Hunter Bell, music and lyrics by Jon and Al Kaplan, adapted from the screenplay Silence!: The Musical by Jon and Al Kaplan
Dr Hannibal Lecter – Miles Western
Clarice Starling – Tory Ross
Buffalo Bill – Fabian Hartwell
Catherine / Senator Martin – Catherine Millsom
Jack Crawford – Tim McArthur
Ardelia Mapp – Shakella Dedi
Dr Frederick Chilton – Leon Kay
Sgt Jim Pembry – Christopher Mitchell
Lamb – Phil Price
Dream Clarice – Phillipa Holliday
Bob Broad – Musical Director & Keyboard
Chris Peake – Second Keyboard
Peter Dawson – Percussion & Kit
Christopher Gatelli – Director & Choreographer
Peter Bull & Victoria Lang – Producers
Prav Menon Johansson – Designs, adapted for ATS, based on original design by Scott Pask, costumes based on original design by David Kaley
Richard Lambert – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 28 January, 2010
Venue: Above the Stag Theatre, Victoria, London SW1
Thomas Harris has written four thrillers about Hannibal (‘The Cannibal’) Lecter, a psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh. The second in the series, “The Silence of the Lambs”, was the most celebrated of the novels and the film that subsequently came out of it is one of very few productions that won Oscars in the five major Academy Award categories: best film, best director Jonathan Demme, best leading actor Antony Hopkins, best leading actress Jodie Foster and best screenplay Ted Tally. What is extraordinary about both the book and the film is that they became enormously popular despite the horrendous nature of the narrative which recounts the crimes of the cannibalistic doctor of psychiatry Hannibal Lecter (he ate his patients) who is kept in solitary confinement, and the serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ (real name Jame Gumb) who abducts overweight women, starves them and then kills and skins them. In the film Lecter almost becomes a hero, rather than the psychopath he obviously is and, while Hopkins appears to dominate the film, his part actually mounts to only sixteen minutes of screen time. The film was almost never released to theatres. It was considered so grisly that it nearly went straight to video. But it cleaned up at the box office and at the Oscars.
How then could anybody transfer the horrors of “The Silence of the Lambs” into a stage musical? It began as an internet parody for which Jon and Al Kaplan wrote a number of songs. These then grew into a musical show with a further six songs and a book by Hunter Bell based on the Kaplans’ screenplay. It premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2005, directed by Christopher Gatelli. Its European premiere was at the Baron’s Court Theatre in London in October 2009 for a two-week run. Gatelli has now transferred his production to the Above the Stag pub-theatre in Victoria where it is playing to sell-out houses most evenings.
Probably the only way to approach the subject of “Silence!” is through parody which perhaps suggests that the original book and film were indeed examples of the horror-comic genre. At screenings of horror films where audiences are at first shocked, their next response is to laugh, merely as a sense of relief. This happens for such films as “Psycho”, “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and indeed the ‘hero’ of “Silence of the Lambs”. Jame (Buffalo Bill) Gumb is based on the same sources used by the creators of Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Leatherface in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: one Ed Gein, a serial killer from Wisconsin who killed women and made clothes out of their skins.
In their treatment the Kaplans’ adaptation, music and lyrics at least make it a more palatable subject by sending up the film and its genre. The mad psychiatrist Dr Lecter is behind bars but is nevertheless happy to divulge information about who ‘Buffalo Bill’ might be. When FBI man Jack Crawford asks trainee Clarice Starling to tackle Lecter with a questionnaire, she does not realise that she is really on the trail of ‘Buffalo Bill’ who is now on his sixth victim. When another victim, the daughter of a Tennessee senator, goes missing, it is time to home-in on ‘Buffalo Bill’. Through talking to Lecter, Starling works out exactly who he is. In the meantime Lecter manages to escape his prison by killing his guards and using one of their faces as a disguise. As Starling finds her man, Lecter is now on the loose and ready to kill again in the next sequel.
Despite the horrors and the absurdities the stage version is hilarious and yet still manages to capture the essence of the original story. It is enlivened by some very jaunty songs and a few suspect ballads such as ‘If I could smell her c**t’, ‘I’d f**k me’ and ‘Put the f**king lotion in the basket’ (remember this is an ‘X’-certificate musical). Tory Ross does a brilliant vocal impersonation of Jodie Foster for her song ‘It’s agent Shtarling’ and Tim McArthur as FBI head Crawford and Clarice’s late father plays the straight voices of authority with the necessary aplomb. As Clarice’s dad he keeps reminding his daughter that “it’s not much fun being dead”.
As Lecter, Miles Western brilliantly makes Hannibal the Cannibal both horrendous and yet loveable. You almost wish he would get away with it – and he does! The supporting players appear in various guises as policemen, warders, FBI men and, oh yes, a flock of tap-dancing lambs providing a totally inappropriate chorus that ignores the plot and performs as if they were in a traditional Broadway musical. All power to director and choreographer Christopher Gatelli who hits the right note of deadpan absurdity without letting his cast know that they are being funny. He even pays homage to said Broadway in references to “Oklahoma!” (dream ballet), “Yentl” (talking to Papa), “Chicago” (fan dance), “The King and I” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin sequence), and even “Les Misérables” (I dreamed a dream…). Whatever musicals hit the London stage during the rest of this year, I can’t imagine one that is going to be more enjoyable than “Silence!” Anyway, it’s certainly the best of the year so far.
- Silence!: The Musical is at Above the Stag Theatre, 15 Bressenden Place, Victoria, London SW1 until Sunday 28 February
- Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; Sunday at 6.30
- Tickets £15.00 on 020 8932 4747
- Above the Stag