Have you ever wondered what Happy Days would be like if it was set in an abattoir? Well, wonder no more because The Bloody Ballad is the show for you.
Bristol Old Vic’s basement Studio space has been transformed into a hick village in 1950s southern America. With a four-piece backing band (aka The Missing Fingers), Mary (played by scriptwriter Lucy Rivers) steps on to the stage in a blood-soaked nightie to tell us all about the terrible weekend she’s just had. She looks like Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers, and that’s clearly the inspiration.
Poor Mary has had a crappy start to life. Abused by her father since she was a child (we’re told this via a chirpy country song called What My Daddy Done in A Minor, ouch), her mother hung herself, and sour Mary is left rotting behind the till in her father’s petrol station. When in wanders Connor (Oliver Woods) to sweep her off her feet.
But of course, all is not as it seems. After falling in love with Connor, Mary kills his three brothers in self-defence after they break into her house to rob her. Leading to a helter-skelter situation where Mary goes from a country bumpkin whose never been kissed, to a full blown murderer in two short breaths.
And all of this is delivered in a raucous rockabilly performance, with a backing band (aided by Tom Cottle and Den Messore), fun 1950s costumes and a hell of a lot of theatrical blood.
With strong women a-plenty (Rivers herself, and Hannah McPake as Connor's cunning mother), The Bloody Ballad had every potential of being a strident feminist theatre piece, and indeed some may still say it is. “I won’t be bullied by no man,” cried Mary. But here’s why I say it isn’t…
What troubled me was the casual way that Mary’s childhood abuse was glossed over with a jaunty song. For a girl who’d been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse by her father since she was tiny, perhaps it’s not so surprising she’d turn out troubled, but then why wasn’t her murderous streak directed at her father (who the script had invested time in telling us about) rather than three strangers? Why wasn’t the revenge motif for her years of rape explored in any way? Hmm. I felt the issue of child abuse was dismissed too lightly and that made me uncomfortable. Even within the light tone of this show, it could have been explored further, which would have had more credibility. But as it stands, the casual attitude appeared disrespectful and sensational. Or worse, that child sex abuse is normal and therefore doesn’t need discussion.
I have to admit, the plausibility of Mary’s character suddenly turning so vicious so quickly left me a little unconvinced, even if I suspended my disbelief. And the actual mechanics and reasoning behind the murders themselves was so convoluted and uninvolved that I was left wondering what happened and why.
The Bloody Ballad was a great fun show, delivered in a blood-slick, high energy way. It’s got enormous potential, but to my mind there are a few big plot holes that need smoothing over first.
The Bloody Ballad is playing at Bristol Old Vic until April 6. Click here for more information and to book tickets.