Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo) (3 stars)

This article is from 2015

Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)

Credit: Richard Davenport

Fine foot-stomping dustbowl morality tale that’s just a bit hard to understand

With raucous, foot-stomping music and a delightfully dilapidated set, north-east theatre company the Letter Room offer a warped dustbowl ballad of greed, revenge and Faustian bargains with the wind. Still reeling from the suspicious death of her father, Little Johnnie Wylo (yes, it’s a she) convinces the impending hurricane to spare her no-hope Midwest town if she can find an ounce of goodness left in it. But with a crooked sheriff, and bankers and realtors out for every last buck they can steal, her quest soon takes a darker turn.

There’s so much right in this dusty, hard-driven show that it feels churlish to complain. The songs – with an impressive orchestra of mandolins, banjos, accordions and more, all played by the cast – are bold and memorable; performances find a nice balance between naturalism and stylised caricature; and the whole Depression-era griminess is conveyed brilliantly.

The big problem is simply following what’s going on: the singers battle to be heard over the dense instrumental accompaniment, thick accents and noisy clog dances obscure key words, and gauze screens are inexplicably drawn across the set, blurring the action. It’s a fine piece of theatre, powerful and in-your-face, but engaging with it feels like a struggle rather than a joy.

Northern Stage at Summerhall, 560 1581, until 30 Aug (not 19, 26), 9.25pm, £10 (£8).

Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)

  • 3 stars

The Letter Room A clock, a town, a sunrise on an empty open coffin and the wind. The wind, who’s dead set on sticking someone in it by sunset. Down in the dust bowl the air’s so thick folk just can’t see what’s coming their way anymore, all ‘cept Johnnie, little Johnnie Wylo. Struggle, survival, sex and live music brewed…