Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Dark of the Moon – exploring otherness and religious oppression with a talented young cast and superb set and soundscape (Lyric Theatre until Saturday 30 March)

Howard Richardson and William Berney adapted the folk song The Ballad of Barbara Allen to create a play set in the Appalachian Mountains. Dark of the Moon is a story about witch boy John who does a deal with the Conjur Woman to become human in order to pursue his love for lusty wild child Barbara Allen, a human girl living in a town steeped in religious fear and fervour.

Nineteen performers from the Lyric Drama Studio (18-25 year olds) take on this two-hour performance which is delivered in the Appalachian dialect and involves singing, dancing, live music and wood chopping.

Callum Payne plays witch boy John, cutting a tall figure on stage with lots of presence and a formidable angle to his jawline. There’s a mix of emotion as the tragic tale unfolds: confident and strong, yet at points also longing and quite crushed.

Opposite him in the other principal role is the talented Ellie McKay. She steps into the boots of Barbara Allen, eyeing her unsuitable admirer up and down. Her character bravely – and somewhat brazenly – stands up to the traditions and preferences of her family and fellow townsfolk. Their chemistry is believable, and McKay physically demonstrates her character’s isolation throughout. While the final scene lacks some of the depth of emotion that I expected to see, perhaps John’s flippancy can be explained away as a sign of his cultural regression.

Colm McCready takes on the pragmatic yet ultimately abusive Preacher Haggler, owning the crucial revival meeting in act two that whips the townsfolk into a charismatic frenzy with confessional scenes that underscore the town’s duplicitous attitudes. One fornicating couple are forgiven while Barbara Allen is zealously pursued for marrying an outsider; her repentance is horrifyingly sealed with a church-approved act of rape.

It’s a gorgeous production to watch and listen to, and Philip Crawford’s direction adds a lot of small details to each character that keeps the large cast from becoming a mere ensemble.

Lyric Drama Studio productions benefit from large casts and the full weight of the Lyric’s technical might. Stuart Marshall’s heavy wooden stockade set – constructed by HMP Maghaberry – grounds the story in the mountains and is complemented by Chris Warner’s thunderous sound effects which beam down on the audience seated around the thrust stage. The controlled echo during the witch scenes is very atmospheric, and the cast commit to the singing accompanied by some great blue grass fiddle playing.

In a world in which religion seems to be used to oppress rather than free, Dark of the Moon’s foray into north American folklore with its somewhat dated sensibilities is an unexpected reminder about the destructive forces that can still be unleashed today when worldviews clash in a fog of intolerance.

Dark of the Moon continues at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 30 March. At the time of writing, many of the performances have sold out, with tickets only available for Friday evening and Saturday matinee.

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