‘Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)’ is a foot stomping hoedown of a tale which marks the The Letter Room’s third play as an associate company of Northern Stage.
It is a dark and brooding tale that tells the story of the titular Johnnie, who strikes a deal with the Wind and races to find some good in a town filled with lust, jealousy and greed before sunset.
The atmosphere the company creates is impressive, from the doleful and at times menacing soundscape to the lighting, reminiscent of an unforgiving sun forcing it’s way through a thick and hazy air. Much of the action is performed behind a gauze that enclosed the company and is suggestive of the hot and relentless ‘dust bowl’ of a town that the characters inhabit, a town where at times it is impossible to see even “five feet in front”. Shadow play is also employed here at times to good effect.
When narrating the tale the actor musicians were placed either side of this space and sang directly to the audience. A ballad relies on imagery to tell it’s tale and here the set, sound and storytelling combined to great effect. Conversely as this structure of ballad was employed none of the characters had any real chance to develop, the protagonist herself was flung straight into her story without allowing the audience to know who she was or indeed why her journey should be so important to us.
The music was well constructed and I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the toe tapping country and western style with the looming sense of doom within the story. The the main melody ran throughout the piece weaving each of the set pieces together with dexterity. I would have liked more variance here and I was initially gratified when the ‘Mayor’ launches into a solo (a particularly strong Michael Blair), however this was cut short.
Within the cast of six, five play a range of instruments and apart from Maria Crocker’s ‘Wind’ and Alex Tahnee’s ‘Little Johnnie Wylo’ they also doubled as narrators as well as various characters within the town. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Alice Blundell, her narrators gaze as it sauntered over the audience was deliciously dark and terrifying.
The Letter Room do achieve what they set out to do, which is to present a ballad in its traditional style, however this left them slightly restricted in terms of character development and storytelling. There is no doubt however that they understand completely the creation of affecting atmosphere as despite the hot and oppressive setting, I left the theatre chilled to the bone.
Reviewed by Byron Butler
Photo: Richard Davenport