Edinburgh Fringe 2015
“An unexceptional fantasist spots a fast-track to success, seizes it and never looks back. But as Eddie Small kicks consequence in the shins and is transformed into a bluegrass sensation, an estranged relative returns to unpick the fabric of his success. Inspired by Robert Johnson, this is a new play about the people we were and the people we become, told by a bluegrass band.”
This is a very hard review to write because this show is so full of good things, and yet it is uneven in its final delivery. And I don’t want that assessment to put you off going to see it. This is a recommended show and I am so glad I went to see it.
The virtues of this show are many – not least the overall conception; we have a musical packed into around an hour that is rooted in bluegrass, departs at one point into an almost-Broadway song, and then also offers periods of fairly intense dialogue and drama.
If the dull lighting is part of the design, it certainly creates a shady atmosphere but it also dampens the piece in parts, making some of the facial expressions hard to see. I think the lighting needs a look at – energy is lost by such continual muted lighting. I don’t mind dark and atmopsheric; but in drama we also need focus and definition.
The performers are all accomplished actors and much of the dialogue is delivered extremely well. I was drawn into this story and wanted to unravel the mystery along with the rest of the audience. A deal with the Devil, a Faustian Pact, is not new of course, but the setting of this piece gives it a fresh twist and the Lee Van Cleef-esque Mephistopheles is a laid back evil dude, adding to the chill of the conceit.
The Devil is literally in the detail in this tale and the small print is all. Here we have a tragedy, laced with dark comedy, carried musically and dramatically by a very capable cast. This is an ensemble piece and the balance between the cast is pitch perfect as is the sound balance between percussion, banjo and guitar. (A harmonica might be a good scene-linker).
What is less consistent is the balance of acting styles which is sometimes pure naturalism and other times borders on melodrama. If that is part of the design, then that design is not clearly enough articulated and demonstrated as an artistic intention. If it isn’t intentonal, then it needs a bit of work. This piece is powerful, even shattering when it is nuanced and subtle – the acting then is almost improvised in style, in the best traditions of a Woody Allen film. When it is less subtle, the actors seem less together, less confident, and the singing feels less integrated. I think this show will bed in further during its run, the “tech” will be tighter.
The talented musicians weave in their instruments extremely well. At its best a shiver runs down your spine and the musical is hugely atmospheric and “moody” in places. With a bit more consistency, this is going to be a very special piece of musical theatre. The script is witty, the plot occasionally a little unclear.
As it is it needs a bit more work. Yet also, as it is, it is a strong, exciting piece of work, well worth seeing. It’s one of those shows that gets a recommended from Fringe Review but is also really a must-see. Catch a fairly unique style of work, full of creative intention and committed, skilled performances. Catch it for its flaws as well as its virtues. Like Bluegrass, it’s a life long journey towards perfection. I’d happily see it again. And I think I will. Go see it.