Murder Ballads is the brainchild of Gerry Smith, an English lecturer who has chosen to bring to the stage Nick Cave’s album of the same name. Initially a challenging listen the LP is, in effect a collection of short stories, now lovingly woven together by Smith’s added dialogue and the other actors’ heartfelt performances.
Their brief introduction sets the scene and welcomes us to the town of Milhaven. Herein a host of colourful characters are largely portrayed by Laura Connolly, Tom Wilson and Thomas Galashan, complete with affected Texan drawl, to varying degrees throughout.
The sublime, sinister, Song of Joy is the first to beckon us in with its air of menace and impending tragedy. The arrangement of duelling hillbilly guitars deliver ample backdrop, along with a clap-along cajon and variable vocals. Connolly’s voice most often makes the high notes beautifully complementing her colleagues’ baritones.
The acting is consciously over the top, complete with melodramatic falls, fist fights, pistols and knives. Kitsch ketchup and diaphanous scarves suggest blood and the am-dram atmosphere is playfully accentuated with pregnant pauses and occasional breaking of the fourth wall to hilarious effect. Cymbals provide gunshots and even a sickening neck-break prompts a collective gasp form the enthralled audience.
Amidst all the slaughter, three of the album’s weaker tracks very much come alive; Lovely Creatures, The Kindness of Strangers and Crow Jane all benefiting from theatrical delivery and added harmonies.
Better known Henry Lee provides tender respite while Where the Wild Roses Grow glows with its Spanish guitars, Connolly admirably emulating Polly Harvey and Kylie Minogue respectively.
In The Curse of Milhaven she embodies Lottie, who leads we, the witnesses in a cutesie chorus line; sing-along-a-slaughter. Tall and handsome Stagger Lee looms large throughout and the character cameos as the corpse count continues throughout O’Malley’s Bar. “The bodies are starting to stack up, aren’t they?” notes our narrator.
Stagger Lee proclaims his ownership of the bar and claims the lives of all inside, even Smith as last man standing who can hide backstage no more. The stricken cadavers prostrate on the floor strike up Death is Not the End and Smith seizes his chance in the limelight with an evangelical verse, tugging our heart strings and tickling our ribs. Those of us still standing offer an ovation deserved of a production so steeped in endeavour and attention to detail.
A jaunty recorded chord loop outro of Song of Joy more joyfully sends us safely home via the bloodstained Milhaven survivors in the lobby whose smiles suggest they’re heading for a better place.
You can see Murder Ballads at Greenside Nicolson Square: 31st July – 24th August at 23:10. For tickets, please visit www.edfringe.com