(Reviewed during previews)
After welcoming the audience with a toe-tapping country tune, the cast immediately address the elephant in the room – yes, this is five young Brits doing a bluegrass musical. Sensibly, they don’t even try to transport us to deepest Kentucky, but to a Bethnal Green club disabled toilet, where musical hopeful Eddie Small is about to sell his soul, and his best mate, to the devil – a cowboy-hatted, bolo-tied devil. Even with that acknowledged, a certain awkwardness lingers. Why are these London kids so mad for bluegrass, other than its expedience for a musical?
Learning from the producer afterwards that the play is mid-rewrite (it’s still in preview), having been hacked back to an hour from an hour and three quarters, is no surprise. There are scenes here that seem to come from different stories. Eddie’s awkward date with his love interest comes straight out of teen drama. To find him shortly afterwards striding cockily on to the stage at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, without the character really having developed, is jarring.
Its best scenes are Eddie-and-the-devil ones. Eddie (Sam O’Hanlon) lets his troubled conscience show, and Stanton Wright makes an excellent devil – matey, but sinister. The ensemble-narrated sections are also potential winners, if only they were used more often to lead us on Eddie’s journey, as segments seem to be missing. There’s definite mileage in this play – the compromises of stardom and conflicts of youth are always rich pickings – and the cast are clearly capable, but as it stands, there’s work to be done to clarify Eddie’s story.