Friday, April 06, 2018

The Jazzabelles - climbing a steep and rocky hill to the Floral Hall (Lyric Theatre until 7 April +tour)

Three women step out from their dreary lives to form a close harmony singing trio amidst an atmosphere of misogyny, lascivious lyrics, gay bashing and religious zeal. It could be a piece of musical theatre set in 2018, but it’s not. The Jazzabelles tells the story of 1950s Belfast-women Prissy, Vera and Ella.

Prissy by name and nature – the character, not the actress! – Rosie Barry (in real life, one third of The Swingtime Starlets) plays a bored housewife whose talents and ambitions are stifled by her overbearing scripture-quoting husband Jack (Neil Keery). Vera (Ciara Mackey, an impressive Lady of the Lake in Spamalot and  runs a dance academy and is underwhelmed by the mediocre students who audition. And Ella (Claire McCartney) sashays her way around the offices she cleans, longing to be singing into a mic on the stage at the Floral Hall rather than making do with a mop.

Nick Boyle wrote the words and music and leads the three piece band (piano, bass, drums) that play to one side of the stage. Each woman is provoked into reconsidering their options, with a solo song to accompany their change of heart and the sudden formation of the group.

As Prissy tells her husband, it is all very narratively expedient: “went to a bar, met some girls, formed a trio and got a manager”. The manager in question is a velvet jacket wearing, smooth talking impresario Vince played by Stephen Beggs.

As you’d expect, the road to musical success is uneven and full of potholes. The discomfort Prissy feels while singing about ‘Honey Hips’ is nothing compared to an unexpectedly large protest that invades the theatre. Then throw in some blackmail, gay bashing and a reformed gambler who is a walking reminder that “the whiter the sepulchre, the dirtier the secrets inside”.

The staging and Neil Keery's direction are conservative with three mini-sets relegated to the back wall of the theatre: an office, a living room and a dance school. The costumes are vintage and period choreography is very convincing. Dan Leith steals the first half when pianist and lothario Rod solos ‘I fall in love too readily’, redeeming an earlier scene shared with McCartney which is surely the most deliberately excruciating example of courting in Lyric history.

While there’s a sprinkling of humour throughout, SkinnyBone Theatre's musical falters a little due to its pedestrian script that treads water with flat dialogue between songs and only really delivers a couple of dramatic moments well into the second half that make the audience buy into the characters. Some of the tunes also ill-fit the singers’ voices, with repeated changes of register curtailing their vocal power.

The casts’ accurate depiction of their depressed and suppressed characters mean that the early close harmony singing lacks a lot of the joy and verve one would expect if this had been a concert rather than a musical play.

In the final numbers, however, all three women can truly smile, let go and give it their all in the reprieve of the catchy 'Jazzabelle Swing' that you’ll be humming as you leave the Naughton Studio.

The Jazzabelles is a fun vehicle for three great voices. It runs in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 7 April [SOLD OUT] and then tours through Down Arts Centre (Friday 13 April), Armagh Market Place Theatre (Saturday 14) and The Old Courthouse Theatre, Antrim (Friday 20).

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