Ten Plagues, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An account of the London plague is a strong choice of subject for a song cycle, and this Traverse production is already a festival highlight and a triumph for the singer Marc Almond, writer Mark Ravenhill, composer Conor Mitchell and director-designer Stewart Laing.

Drawing on snippets of Samuel Pepys' diaries and Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, Ravenhill wrote 10 short passages about spring, a man in a wig, a private passion, grief and so on, culminating in: "I am as an Israelite when Ten Plagues infect the land I live..."

Almond, forsaking the sneering cool of his days in Soft Cell, becomes a man possessed by fear, shock, anger and a deep, abiding sense of pain. The music is anguished and hard-edged, played on a single treated piano by Bob Broad with a magnificent series of thumping chords as Almond is transported from the pits of the dead in 1665, where he sees the face of his lover, to the bustling city landscape of workers and red buses.

The stage is set as if for an oratorio, 15 illuminated music stands across the front and an upper area where Finn Ross's videos are projected: scenes of Hamlet with a skull, writhing bodies, burning night and blazing sunlight as "the dead are screaming still".

Almond, in black with some glinting jewellery, a pleated skirt and a visible tattoo, seems effortlessly to inhabit two worlds, of tragedy both large-scale (100,000 people died in 1665) and specific. And there is a stunning coup near the end, when you think you can hear a chorus beneath Almond's voice and then they are suddenly manifest (I won't reveal how), urging him, and us, to learn a new dance, sing a new song.

Running at one hour, this is the best theatrical song cycle since Don Black and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On A Sunday. Almond, like other pop idols – Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Brett Anderson, Rufus Wainwright – is proving his innate talent all over again, in different and challenging ways.

He has to sing in a sort of expressive sprechtgesang, with few outlets for sweet melodiousness of expansive lyricism. But when those moments come, they are genuinely beautiful and hard won. He laments the death of others but hopes that he will survive.

Like so many of his generation, Almond has endured his own occupational hazards. If you come through years of drugs and drink, and see friends and lovers die of Aids-related illnesses, you might have a special feeling for the fate of those who had no control over their lives. And so it proves.

To 28 August (0131 228 1404)