Marc Almond in Ten Plagues
(© Richard Campbell)
Marc Almond in Ten Plagues
(© Richard Campbell)
Ten Plagues, now being shown as part of the Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Fringe programme, is an account of the plague that swept London in 1665 that takes the form of an hour-long song cycle. The work was created by playwright Mark Ravenhill and music by Conor Mitchell especially for Marc Almond, the former frontman of Soft Cell, and their choice of interpreter proves to be a savvy one: he's a charismatic presence on stage.

Clad in black suit and kilt with pallid face and a white handkerchief to fend off contagion, he looks striking as he stalks through a stark forest of music stands. Behind him stands a raised wooden stage, a clean white box, part casket, part plague pit, onto which images are projected.

The plague killed tens of thousands of Londoners, almost a third of the population, but Almond's character is a survivor and he's determined not to succumb. A lover is not so lucky and one of the production's most striking moments sees Almond interacting with the projection of a younger man (in distinctly contemporary dress), being begged for one last kiss. Fear of taint and infection ripple through the piece -- a kiss could kill -- and some of the images, like the stricken being allowed out after the curfew hour for one last walk, are hauntingly evoked.

There are elements of the musical Cabaret to Stewart Laing's production with the white-faced Almond providing a winning and sometimes impish guide to plague-struck London. Parallels are continually drawn to more contemporary diseases, especially to the devastation wrought by AIDS.

A great deal of historical detail can be found in Ravenhill's writing, but Mitchell's music is rather unvaried. While there's a suitably feverish and anguished quality to it, it starts to feel rather repetitive and relentless, and by a certain midway point, the whole thing becomes quite oppressive.

The final song, however, provides a welcome shift in tone and texture, as the connections with the contemporary city are made explicit. Against a backdrop of images of a pulsing, populous London in the 21st Century, the piece ends in the most life affirming and joyous way, with a memorable coup de theatre and a soaring hymn to man's capacity to survive against the odds.