Driven by its character performances, if traditional in its content, Murder Ballads promises to be an hour of irreverent, late-night fun. Katherine Knight reviews: the narrative version of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album:

Murder Ballads is a show designed to cater to that very, very specific need within all of us: the cowboy cabaret. Based on the 1996 album of the same name by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, this cabaret adaption goes all out in bringing its fruitful source material to life.

It’s wild and raucous fun, taking the audience on a journey through the sleepy Texas town of Millhaven and the most disastrous family since ancient Greek tragedy. And yes, this includes the incest, replete with song and stabbing. It’s wonderfully visceral content, as the actor in question starts to look as though he would rather be anyhwher else as soon as death looms on the horizon.

Murder Ballads is driven by its fantastic character performances, which keep the audience engaged from start to close. It revels in its traditional archetypes, from barman to gunslinger. The quartet instantly break the fourth wall, eliciting and bouncing off the reactions – there are winks to the audience, off-beat clapping and at one point an impromptu ‘ow’ from someone in the front row as a neck is broken with an audible crack.

As is always the way, it’s the ad libs that make the greatest impression, a testament to the cast’s improvisatory skill – at this performance, a misplaced cymbal-crash dampens the protagonist’s big moment, and a subsequent throwaway comment, “You can’t get the staff around here” ends up stealing the show.

Liberal use of the F-word abounds, though the Murder Ballads songs aren’t one-note – while Stagger Lee (Thomas Galashan) delights in every curse word known to man, the duet ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ strikes a particularly melancholy chord. Suddenly the cast are cavorting back again, with a wonderfully irreverent ‘Crow Jane’. Though the singing is more characterful than note perfect, Laura Connolly in particular stands out as both vocally talented and incredibly versatile. Her switches from prostitute to child have the potential to be disconcerting, and the show will benefit from another female cast member. But small changes in outfit ensure that the multi-roles don’t become more uncomfortable than necessary.

Murder Ballads isn’t the most progressive show, working as it does with the stories set out within the original album – most of the victims of the great outlaw are women, and a wry “Who writes this shit?” from the female character seems to lampshade the point. Women do occasionally get their own back, but the balance is still highly skewed and some of the scenes can become uncomfortable as they edge towards domestic violence. However, If you can acknowledge the source material’s flaws, Murder Ballads is an hour of enthusiastic, old-school fun, great in spirit.

★★★★☆

Murder Ballads is now playing at Greenside @ Nicolson Square until 24 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.