Lazarus review – Michael C Hall is a loving alien in spectacular Bowie fantasy

King’s Cross theatre, London
David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth is staged with visual sophistication by Ivo van Hove but it’s rarely emotionally engaging

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How to describe this feted New York import by David Bowie and Enda Walsh? “Musical” seems inadequate. It is part sci-fi story, part rock concert, part video installation, part study in alienation. But, while the separate ingredients are fascinating to watch in Ivo van Hove’s kaleidoscopic production, I rarely felt moved.

The impulse behind the show came from Bowie himself who wanted to explore further the character of Thomas Newton, the extraterrestrial he played in the 1976 Nicolas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. Now, suffocatingly rich and living a life of alcoholic seclusion in New York, the hero might best be described as Thomas the tanked alien. He pines for a lost earthly love, Mary Lou, is covertly worshipped by his assistant, Elly, and is visited by an ethereal character known simply as Girl who offers him the prospect of building a rocket to return to his native planet.

Michael C Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso
An engrossing spectacle … Michael C Hall and Sophia Anne Caruso Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Many New York critics, on the show’s debut last December, professed to be bewildered by the plot. I took it to be an exploration of the existential angst that pervades Bowie’s music: this is the story of a man never wholly at ease in himself or his surroundings. It was also shrewd of Bowie to engage Walsh to write the book because, in plays such as Ballyturk and The Walworth Farce, the Irish dramatist has shown a hypnotised fascination with characters who create fantasy worlds to allay their solitude. Walsh’s script is also stuffed with literary clues. Thomas quotes Hamlet’s “In that sleep of death what dreams may come”, suggesting he identifies with the Danish prince torn between two worlds, and it is no accident that the ghostly Girl is called Marley, like Scrooge’s revenant partner in A Christmas Carol.

The ingredients are all there, but do they add up to a memorable show? Yes and no. The big draw is clearly the Bowie score. Of the 17 songs some are old, some new and, at best, they extend the dramatic situation. When Amy Lennox – the main newcomer to the cast and outstanding as Elly – sings the 1971 song Changes, it seems a logical expression of her urge to transform herself into the lost Mary-Lou.

At other times, as when the whey-faced Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl sings Life on Mars?, I felt the number, which is surely about earthbound ennui, is less strictly relevant to the character. But Bowie buffs will be delighted to hear so many songs very well played by an onstage band situated behind a clear acrylic screen.

Van Hove, his long-term designer Jan Versweyveld and the video designer Tal Yarden have created an engrossing spectacle. The deliberate plainness of the surround is offset by the profusion of images that pour from a central screen depicting everything from the neon sickness of urban America to the Berlin background of Where Are We Now? At one point a character even emerges from the screen to become a peripatetic hologram. I also admired Michael C Hall, who conveys the desperation of the lonely, time-suspended Thomas and Michael Esper, who lends Valentine, a serial killer symbolising Earth’s dark forces, a saturnine vigour.

Yet, for all the show’s skill, I found myself more impressed by the visual sophistication than emotionally engaged by the story: only when Lennox sang of her divided self and when Hall gazed wistfully at the lost delights of earthly love was I moved. Of course, it’s great to hear the Bowie songs and his death lends the show a patina of melancholy. But, watching this spectacular study of a pained outsider’s search for peace, I too felt a sense of alienation.

Amy Lennox as Elly, Michael C Hall as Newton and Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl in Lazarus.
A pained outsider’s search for peace … Amy Lennox as Elly, Michael C Hall as Newton and Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl in Lazarus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
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