Saturday 11th March, 2017 at Leeds Carriageworks Theatre (Upstairs).
The Butcher is marketed as a ‘fantastical 4 star folk tale’ from the talented Paul Mosley; part gig, part ghost story and part puppet show. In fact, let me add the seductive description here:
I happen to love gripping ghostly tales and music, and I have a few Mediaeval Baebes albums, so I was pretty interested from the start…but I’m a huge puppetry fan, and any promise of it in a show not specifically aimed at children pretty much always makes me part with money. To lure me in with the prominent, leading promise of ‘stunning puppetry from Icelandic company Old Saw’ and then to include absolutely no puppetry at all is unforgivable. There. I said it.
Is it a gig? Yes.
Is it a ghost story? I guess, though it’s not exactly haunting.
Is it a puppet show? No.
The Butcher is a thoroughbred gig. It encourages the atmosphere of a gig, with flash photography and talking, with extended applause and whoops between each of the 20ish sings and someone’s adorable young son sitting in full view at the back of the stage, eating a chocolate biscuit. The Butcher gives the audience two hours of great, catchy, brilliant folk music, courtesy of Paul Mosley’s great musical ability and his accompanying ‘Red Meat Orchestra’. It is not, however, in any way a performance outside of a musical gig; no acting to speak of other than the use of a telescope and the taking off of a layer, no token set, no token costume but for a sailor’s outfit, and…none of the promised puppetry, which would presumably have tipped this into the realm of the developed performance of the story rather than purely a gig. There are countless areas of potential – it could be the gripping tale promised if more time were put into the actual performance elements – for instance, the narrative between songs was read out from a ring binder, which was slowly passed about the stage. If musicians have memorised both music and lyrics, why have they not memorised short paragraphs of narrative? Those segments could have been so much more powerful if they had been rehearsed and developed into actual performances rather than clunky, lack-lustre readings. Perhaps that’s where the puppetry should have made an appearance?
I realise that this review makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy much of the performance, but that’s not accurate. Paul Mosley has a superb, versatile voice and harbours that rare talent of a raspiness that can be brought about on cue. Esther Dee’s voice sweetly soars through the slower songs and handles the more fiery songs very comfortably. Jack Harris has a fantastic, smooth voice which wouldn’t be out of place on a Mumford and Sons track. Each and every musician on that stage was clearly a huge talent, and it was great to hear them perform a striking, beautifully written and often toe-tapping collection of songs. I particularly loved the title song, ‘Shadows On The Wall’ and ‘No Hound Dog On Your Trail’ – I also loved the wide array of both ‘proper’ and improvised instruments being used by this ‘junk orchestra’ – from frying pans to tins of beans and a wooden block capable of producing the sounds of a tooting train! Had this been marketed as a gig, it would be a 4 star show; had it had a few more engaging performance aspects outside of the music, it would be a 3 star show. But to have not delivered on a prominent selling point of what would physically be present in the show is a real problem for me; you can get away with not quite delivering on intangible impressions, but you can’t get away with cutting out a whole advertised aspect.
I enjoyed the music so much that I bought the album at the end of the show and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to the music again this morning. The bottom line here is that had I been expecting to just see a gig, performed by a talented bunch of musicians, I’d have been perfectly happy. But I wasn’t. I was expecting a different experience because of the promising, alluring marketing, and I was therefore disappointed – at least I have a new CD to listen to though…which, by the way, I heartily recommend – I’d give it the whole five stars for an album in this genre…