Satan is real, working with power – that’s the warning offered up by Gagglebabble’s raucous and hilarious southern-gothic pastiche The Bloody Ballad. Channelling the spirits of Hank Williams Snr., Johnny Cash and the Louvin Brothers, house-band The Missing Fingers play a live set that evokes the Memorial Day celebrations of Evergreen, a sleepy hamlet located somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line in 1950s America. All foot tapping and hoe-downing is soon brought to an abrupt halt, however, by the arrival of Mary, a twisted singer-songwriter – think Loretta Lynn crossed with Mallory from Natural Born Killers – eager to share her recollections of the previous weird weekend with her captive audience and dressed in a blood-soaked shorty nightie. A tale of dark passions, sexual abuse, torture and murder unfolds in a hectic eighty minutes of rockabilly music, snake-killings, jet-black jokes and enough pop-culture references to out-do Tarantino.
Mary (played by show creator Lucy Rivers) recounts her troubled past, in an irresistibly catchy song with the immortal title of The Things My Daddy Did (In A Minor), before sensing her rescue in the unlikely form of local bad boy Connor (Oliver Wood). Rivers’ story mines the rich, though familiar, territory of fifties B-movies such as Gun Crazy and They Live By Night, but whereas those films were charged with eroticised rebellion against post-war Eisenhower conservatism, The Bloody Ballad is simply a joyous splash around in the tropes of early youth culture and the roots of rock-and-roll. While the production does not exactly blaze a trail for theatrical originality, it is distinguished by an affectionate attention to detail – sound designer Dan Lawrence creates a textured and evocative sound-scape that complements the music perfectly. Led by Mary, the Missing Fingers perform Rivers’ self-penned songs with a high level of musicianship. Both in the songs, and in their playing, there is none of the one-note, one-joke satirising of country clichés made famous by Rich Hall’s avatar Otis Lee Crenshaw, but a palpable sense of love for country music and the Blues. Of the band, lead guitarist Dan Messore is a particular stand out, with a style reminiscent of Dick Dale and Duane Eddy.
The Bloody Ballad struggles somewhat in its first twenty-five minutes to establish the right tone for its compelling blend of cautionary folk tale, live country-and-western gig and lovers-on-the-run movie tribute. Once Mary gets her first taste of blood, however, during a macabre, nightmarish scene in which her confusion and fear is manifested in the form of a silhouetted Devil, the play becomes sharply focused and the last half flits by before the lack of an intermission is noticed. The fleet-footed direction of Adele Thomas is assured and well-paced, her production is knowing but never arch and is always poised on the right side of camp. Given the cinematic influences, it would have been an obvious choice to inject some multiscreen multimedia into the performance, but Thomas wisely eschews such complication and instead focuses her production on its multi-talented cast, who each perform with impressively high levels of energy, particularly Gagglebabble co-founder Hannah McPake.
Sophisticated fun is a much underrated quality in theatre. Entertainment is all too often left to the mainstream. There, commercial producers offer up jukebox musicals and mindless revivals as crowd pleasers. At the other extreme, theatrical innovation frequently serves challenging work that only attracts much smaller, non-mainstream audiences. The Bloody Ballad is an example of what can be achieved when a company combines live music with scripted drama to create an intelligent and witty piece of entertainment that attempts to do nothing more than make you laugh, stamp your feet and occasionally hold your breath. Younger audiences (in the much sought after 18-35 demographic) should find in this fusion of gig and play an eye-opening realisation that grown-up theatre can be life-affirming even when the subject is bloody murder.
Gagglebabble now joins Give It A Name as a Welsh theatre company that is willing to push back the boundaries of theatre and reach out to a younger audience without talking down to it, and Lucy Rivers is certainly one to watch in future. Surely Adele Thomas’ production will meet its destiny in Edinburgh where it will find the larger audience it deserves. In the meantime, catch the show on tour before your only chance to see it is in Folsom Prison.
All photographs by Kirsten Mcternan