Only An Octave Apart ★★★★★

Only An Octave Apart, at Wilton’s after a lauded New York run, sees Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanza delivering an evening fusing their contrasting talents.

There are some things that just go together. Macaroni and Cheese. Batman and Robin. Liz Truss and Crashing the Economy. 

You wouldn’t necessarily have put peerless alt-cabaret chanteuse Justin Vivian Bond and world-class countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo together. Their show Only An Octave Apart borrows from both their respective worlds to create the unexpected cabaret-opera fusion you never know you needed. Forging unique and triumphantly queer interpretations of classical arias, pop tunes and, best of all, iconic hybrids of the two.

All images © Ellie Kurttz

On paper, their two voices shouldn’t work together. Well take that paper. Rip it up into tiny pieces and burn them immediately. The paper is wrong. Their vocal intermingling is logic-defyingly exquisite.

Only An Octave Apart takes inspiration from those old American TV variety shows; in particular Sills and Burnett at the Met, where Opera Diva Beverley ‘Bubbles’ Sills and comedienne Carol Burnett combined talents including a duet of the song ‘Only An Octave Apart’. Choosing the Grade II-listed Wilton’s Music Hall, apart from sentimental reasons – Vivian claims to have been there for the laying on the first flagstone, lends the show a Vaudevillian charm. Footlights on Vivian singing ‘Me And My Shadow’ not only casts suitable accompanying silhouettes on the curtains behind them, it taps into the long diverse entertainment heritage of the venue.

Anthony’s first opportunity to take centre stage with some of what Vivian hilariously describes as that “four hundred year old music that they don’t want to hear” comes with his rendition of ‘One Charming Night’ from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. If your only experience of hearing a countertenor is the theme from Blackadder II, you are in for an awakening. There is something pure and hypnotically beautiful about hearing Costanza’s voice fill every part of the Victorian Music Hall. The skill with which he modulates and finds nuance in his falsetto would be breathtaking, if you remembered to breath. Penetrating indeed!

With Costanza offering solo treats including ‘The Wanderers Nightsong II”, a Goethe poem that became a Liszt lieder, and an exquisite, stirring ‘Deh Placatevi Con Me’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice, it is no exaggeration to say it is a privilege to hear a world-class opera superstar in such an intimate space. 

London has long had a love affair with the self-described “vain cabaret legend” that is Justin Vivian Bond. As one half of Kiki and Herb, they have long cemented themselves in the hearts of adoring British audiences on every visit. Put simply, they have funny bones. We hang on their every word as endless hilarious insights are delivered with their trademark caustic insouciance. A chat on the charms of the 1,000 year old theatre ends up with the grievance of having to move our own scenery. When Anthony is introducing ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ / ‘Autumn Leaves’ made famous by Edith Piaf, Vivian dubs their co-star as “the little swallow”. 

In a recent interview, Viv was asked the difference between American and London audiences to which they replied that the British have an evil streak. This was in evidence when they were talking about The Funeral happening in London when they arrived. A passing mention of The Sussexes drew an audible, spontaneous grumbling sound from the stalls. Vivian had a momentary glint clearly deciding whether to riff further on this topic or to stay on track. As it was Press night, they chose the latter but The Recs wouldn’t be surprised if Viv chooses to expand upon this fertile topic. 

It would be to underestimate their contribution if you were to think of Vivian only providing the LOLs. Their solo numbers were a fascinating extension of their persona. ‘There Are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden’ following on from The Fairy Queen aria channelled the playfulness of Beatrice Lillie. While Vivian may have had some issues planting their flowers (not a euphemism), it only added a shade of Lucille Ball slapstick to the number. 

Performing ‘Autumn Leaves’ behind a voile curtain, with beautiful ochre and amber lighting by John Torres, with a scattering of leaves descending from the ceiling, it was a striking tableau to stage Vivian’s evocative rendition.

Perhaps the highlights of the show were when both performers sang together. At the lighter end of the scale, the much-covered ‘Waters of March’ brought a disputed meaning between the two. Is it about fishing or murder? Who cares when Vivian is jazz scatting and Anthony is trilling operatically!

Justin Vivian Bond’s familiar quip “If I’m not speaking, how do I know what I’m thinking?” is a great joke but it has an insight to Bond as a performer. Despite a cursory eye roll at Anthony’s chat about self-actualisation, a key to why Vivian is so beloved as a performer is that, under the faux seen-it-all-didn’t-like-much-of-it humour, there is a bold emotional openness. When they sing, they don’t present lyrics. They share of themselves.

Nothing quite prepares you for the emotional sucker punch that is ‘Don’t Give Up’. All the curtains and voiles have been slowly stripped back throughout the show. Now in front of the bare exposed wall of Wilton’s comes an unexpectedly disarming performance of the Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush song. Following immediately after ‘Deh placatevi con me’ (an aria where Orpheus is almost beyond hope as he pleads for entrance to the underworld), Don’t Give Up is the perfect contemporary heartbreaker.

Taking the aerial heights of Anthony’s pristine stratosphere-touching range, combined with Vivian’s warm, earthy growl and you have two irresistible elemental forces creating musical alchemy. It speaks of the pain that touches our lives. The feeling of hopelessness of running out of fight. The comforting balm of Vivian’s “We’re proud of who you are /Don’t give up” is all the more powerful because we sense the lived life of the performer. With a sensitive arrangement by Nico Muhly, and beautifully played by the nine musicians, it is as emotionally devastating as any drama that has graced the stage of Wilton’s. A sea of red eyes and sniffing accompanied the thunderous reaction. 

As if you weren’t a wreck already, the encore included their Didos. Taking ‘Dido’s Lament When I Am Laid In Earth from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas and interweaving it with pop star Dido’s innocuous hit ‘White Flag’, Didos is a creation beyond  the mere coincidence of names. Brief classics lesson: Dido is the Queen of Carthage (actual royalty Queen, rather than yasss queen). Aeneas, a warrior fleeing from the Fall of Troy, is blown off course and sails into Carthage. The two have a wild, passionate romance but then he decides he must continue his voyage and leaves her behind. Men, eh! Dido, distraught and heartbroken, orders that a huge funeral pyre should be built so that Aeneas can see the ruin that he has brought from his departing ship. Gotta love a drama queen! In one of opera’s most tragic arias, even as she prepares for death, her plaintive “Remember me” calls out to her lover as he sails away. As Anthony’s haunting rendition hangs in the air, Vivian’s fragile delivery of White Flag perfectly repurposes the lyrics to Queen Dido’s heartbreak. “I know you think that I shouldn’t still love you, Or tell you that” are not just the sentiment of a jilted lover – these become the words of The Jilted Lover. “I will go down with this ship” is a literal conviction as Dido (the queen, not the pop star) kills herself as Aeneas sails out of sight. Turn that emotional dial up to ten!

To say the evening lived up to the high expectations of our October magazine preview would be an understatement. Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanza have created a show that is camp, funny and playful but one that manages to mine emotional depths. You laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll think I should see more opera. With an underlying theme of love, defiance and being true, Only An Octave Apart is an uplifting experience – and undoubtedly the show of the year so far.

Only An Octave Apart sees two incomparable performers at the height of their powers – an unmissable ★★★★★ (5 stars) from The Recs

Only An Octave Apart Tickets

Only An Octave Apart runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 22nd October.

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