Now, I’m going to come straight out with this and make it public knowledge before I delve into this review. There is a slight conflict of interest between myself and the company behind Murder Ballads. I’ve worked with three of the four actors before now, as well as having worked on a university project with director, Ellie Hurt. So I was a little apprehensive to agree to review this piece. As, if reviews from the previous incarnation of this play were to be believed – that Murder Ballads really was a show stopper – then it would be seen as me being favourable to people I know. This however, isn’t how Theatrevolt works and operates. And while this has involved reviewing a company that involves people I call friends, it could be seen as giving me the allowance to put this show under more scrutiny, because I know what this company is capable of should they truly work to their full capacity.
So, that begs the question doesn’t it? Is Murder Ballads an exceptional piece of theatre that has put the gritty cowboy musical on the map in the liverpool theatre world? Or is it a killer of a musical for all the wrong reasons?
The show in itself is written around the Nick Cave album of the same name, with the storyline written to make sense of the songs. This is no easy feat, and Gerry Smyth makes a good attempt at it to be fair. For me though, the story itself is a little convoluted at its beginnings, giving the audience an introduction to the four characters that presumably it will revolve around at O’Malley’s bar, before suddenly going into the first song and introducing the next set of characters. This doesn’t allow the audience the chance to settle into the world. A number of people around me were wondering why Laura Connolly’s character was acting like a younger version of herself with any explanation of this development very quickly glossed over to maintain the pace of the storyline. This opening essentially justifies the entire storyline and, by not giving it enough of the care that it requires, it neglects the rest of the plot by default in an attempt to pull the atmosphere together and build momentum.
This sets the precedent for the rest of the performance unfortunately in terms of the script, as the entire thing feels somewhat more shoehorned than it should to accommodate and make sense of the songs of Mr. Cave. This however, is partially masked by the 100 mile per hour pace at which the entirety of the company blaze through the action with. The cast don’t give you a second to pause on the pitfalls of the script and storyline. Before you have a chance to digest what has happened – the cast, along with the story and anything you were trying to think about – has moved on to its next phase. Couple this clever use of a constantly high energy (whether intentionally deceiving the audience or not) with some physically impressive and demanding deaths, and you have a recipe for a show that is going to leave the audience baying for more and applauding you ’till the cows come home. For sheer entertainment value, this is favourable and a way to get people on their feet. But if you’re someone who is looking to give the piece the attention and scrutiny it is right to receive from the likes of reviewers and industry professionals, it needs more care and attention.
There are some really lovely moments in terms of the obvious chemistry on show from the cast, particularly that of Thomas Galashan and Laura Connolly. There is a clear electricity and understanding between the two actors that is shown in their choreography that has each of the movements timed to within a millisecond of each other.
Building from that, the stage combat in itself and the physicality of the piece as a whole was of a seriously high standard for a studio space. The fights were well co-ordinated and didnt have the scruffy, not really knowing what’s happening attitude that a lot of fringe spaces seem to produce. Neither did it stink of over-rehearsed, under-dramatic tosh that is the other side of the fringe theatre scene. This piece got the violence just right. Ellie Hurt didnt fall for the typical stereotypes of stage combat, instead cleverly got around them with smart lighting, suggestive angles and, for my favourite touch, even withholding gun shot sounds and replacing them with a loud cymbal crash for a welcome change to the stale sound effects people hear so often in these theatres.
Gerry Smyth is a talent on stage for the musical numbers and his timing and stripped back style accompanied by Wilson and sometimes Connolly create that full sound of a studio album without all the fuss of a full band. Instead sticking to two guitars and a cajon. Excellent.
In terms of what Smyth brings to the table for the action, his character talks gibberish and nonsense throughout. Much like Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles. The difference being though, is that Gabby Johnson from Blazing Saddles was talking utter nonsense in a gibberish and mumbled way and Smyth’s enunciation was pristine and one could hear every syllable, never mind word. This could have been taken advantage of and purposefully mistreated to create more of a comedic effect and give a better pay off when he finally does talk coherently in the closing stages of the play.
Thomas Galashan plays a good part throughout the piece. His physicality is nice and underplays a lot of his moments quite smartly when one could be tempted to jump over the line and try to please the audience more by over-egging the scene. This however, didnt happen, and he plays the scenes well. Albeit slightly quickly. He does though, seem to struggle with the musical side of the piece and lost the cowboy accent when in song, resorting to something like an RP English accent, which is weirder when you consider the actor is from Belfast, NI. The problem with this, is that losing this accent, results in removing the authenticity. I’m not sure if this is a lack of confidence in his own voice, or lack of range. But I do feel it can be rectified quite easily with more attention to detail.
Laura Connolly was the name on a lot of people’s lips when listening to conversations outside of the theatre afterwards. She was full of energy, musically skilled and always throwing herself into each character she played with huge amounts of gusto. My issue though, was that due to this huge amount of effort, it seemed that she neglected the differences in her characterisation. I found myself questioning why a lot of the characters were sharing characteristics and not distinct from the other, given the range of characters there were to play. As mentioned above with Thomas Galashan not playing to the audience, I do feel that Connolly did the opposite of this and played to the audience a little too much at times. The audience interaction was great, and I would be hard pressed to highlight any particular area that needs attention. But collectively, it was strained and repetitive.
Tom Wilson holds the middle ground well as a go between for the entirety of the cast, and for me, steals the show by being the spine of the performance and driving the narrative in a way that often goes unnoticed and, which is arguably the hardest job with such an energetic cast surrounding him. To reign the other cast members in and keep the direction of the piece on course takes skill, and this Wilson demonstrates in abundance. I would say, however, that he seemed a little too focused on the music at times and can also be a tad too jovial. Which is understandable for the part he has to play, but does need attention, as some of his lines are lost in the lightness of his tone.
Direction-wise, Ellie Hurt is really starting to develop and grow within the Liverpool theatre scene. I last saw her work when watching The Collector at the Hope Street Theatre a few months ago. That was always going to be a very hard piece of theatre to top considering the standard of it, and she very nearly manages it with Murder Ballads. There were some clever pieces of direction throughout this piece and Hurt definitely recognises where her own strengths lie. But I was just left wanting on one too many occasions for this piece to be on the same level of my last viewing of her work.
Overall, the piece does have some really strong scenes and can only be seen as a piece that is going to get stronger. However, it does need to pay attention to the smaller details if it is to grow into the true tour-de-force that it definitely has the potential to be at the Edinburgh Festival
Theatrevolt rating: 3.5 stars