The Bloody Ballad[author-post-rating] (4/5 Stars)

Imagine Stephen King’s Carrie invading the stage post-prom complete with a live band for a musical confessional, and you begin to get an idea of what The Bloody Ballad has in store for you. The evening begins with the ragtag group The Missin’ Fingers warming up the crowd with a few well-known American tunes. But soon enough the leading lady Mary Maid (played by Lucy Rivers) arrives, the blood still drying on her white blouse, announces she has “a lot to get off her chest”, and the evening takes a delicious turn for the dark as she takes us through the tragic tale of her week so far, beginning with meeting her true love and ending in fire and murder.

Is this a gig? Is this a musical? Is it a piece of theatre? It’s somewhere on a sliding scale between all of these, taking the best attributes of each for a performance that is fresh, immediate and unexpected. Every moment is aurally beautiful, and even silence is used to its full effect in a nail-biting break-in scene, Mary alone in the house and creeping through the dark to find the intruders. The music is all original, a glorious homage to the best of Americana, blues and rockabilly. This tub-thumpin’, toe-tappin’ rollicking set, driven on by the railroad beat a la Johnny Cash, is so catchy that you’ll swear you’ve heard the songs somewhere before, and they will stay with you after you leave the theatre. From the tragic tale of Mary Maid’s past in ‘What My Daddy Done (in A Minor)’ to the torture scene set to a doo-wop crooner ballad, the music is all performed live by the actor-musicians and their eight-plus instruments, who move seamlessly from songs to acting to dance-like fight sequences, adopting new characters and never dropping their act, even as they idly blow bubblegum or chime in from the background.

The notably handsome Dan Messore and talented drummer Tom Cottle fill narration and scene transitions with mellow electric guitar themes reminiscent of road movies and long horizons; Oliver Wood is compelling as a dark and dangerous love interest who we come to understand and really empathise with; and a special mention must go to Hannah McPake for her hilarious portrayal as a mad mother in leopard print and horn-rimmed glasses.

The show has its tongue ghoulishly set in its cheek, with a dark and visceral humour reminiscent of the London Dungeon. Considering the subject matter, this is a show from which you will leave entertained, and, yes, uplifted. Rivers’ Mary Maid is played with a charm and a smile that you can’t help but be won over by, despite her crimes. Through multiple murder she has finally found love and freedom – “I’m a liberated woman!” she crows. As she says, “We’re not the villains – we’re just products of our environment and our upbringing.” And I couldn’t help but cheer her on, even in her orange jumpsuit on death row.

The Bloody Ballad is playing at The Warren until May 6. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.