LOUIS BARABBAS: JOCASTA – A MUSICAL TRAGEDY DEBT RECORDS : album review
JOCASTA – A MUSICAL TRAGEDY
RELEASED 5 MAY 2017
Discussing the return from hiatus of his former band The Bedlam Six two years ago, Louis Barabbas wrote: “we’re not going to be fiddling about with radio and press any more […] I for one am done with caring about buzz and reach. That way madness lies.” In making a decisive break from the politics and trends of the music industry this lynchpin of the Manchester scene announced his intention to break every rule in sight with greater gusto than ever, and the result is ‘Jocasta’: a 31-track full-cast recording, complete with literal whistles and bells, of a tour de force of musical theatre that is yet to be staged.
Never one to take a legend at face value, Louis Barabbas turns the familiar tale of the father-murdering mother-marrying Oedipus on its head. The action is relocated to 1920s “Patrida”, a fictional kingdom bearing an eerie resemblance to interwar Britain, and the ill-fated king is removed from the score altogether. Instead, the focus falls alternately on the rise and fall of his wife/mother Jocasta and her dastardly family, the Creon dynasty, and on the embattled revolutionaries of Patrida as they seek to overthrow a regime rooted in financial and political skulduggery and ruthless, sensationalist tabloid journalism.
Sound familiar? It ought to; this is a show written against the backdrop of Brexit, Murdoch and Trump, and it wears its politics on its sleeve. “If you really want to run things / Then give the people something / To hate,” declaims media tycoon Horace Creon (portrayed with delicious venom by the brilliant Jami Reid-Quarrell) in a gruesome ode to the power of populist outrage and intolerance. Richard Barry, as the magnificently-named banker Humphrey Leatherbreath, lends his sinister basso profundo to a number that is clearly the evil sibling of Mary Poppins’ ‘Fidelity Fiduciary Bank’, explaining that “You’re on the take / Why should you give / A thought to who slips through the sieve?”. And yet, even with the dark underbelly of power and privilege so clearly – and so wittily – on display, there is always room for hope. The undoubted showstopper here is the anthemic ‘Before You Disperse’, a hymn to solidarity and resistance that deserves a place alongside the great protest songs of the 20th century.
Amongst a uniformly superb cast that includes such luminaries as Tom Hingley (Inspiral Carpets) and none other than the legendary Tom Robinson, Bridie Jackson’s performance still manages to excel. Her portrayal of Jocasta’s journey from naive socialite to full-blown tragic heroine reveals the staggering extent of what her voice can really do, from soothing (‘Lullaby’), grieving (‘I Will Howl’, No Baby To Lull’), raging (‘Keeping It Together’) and seducing (‘Take Me Now’) to her final moment of grim determination ‘(Lock The Doors’). Those who are familiar with her magical rendition of another of Louis Barabbas’ compositions, ‘Scarecrow’, will not be disappointed; these are two masterly musicians in artistic lockstep, and this is a leap forward for both.
In keeping with its themes of revolution and the rewriting of tired narratives, this recording represents a leap of faith, giving a two-fingered salute to the convention of “production first, cast recording after” and marching forward armed only with the conviction of its own excellence. This conviction is well-founded; ‘Jocasta’ is heartbreaking, uplifting, hilarious, clever, catchy, and endlessly inventive. If at times the pared-down instrumentation makes the listener long for a full orchestra (there are sounds achievable by a string section that are just not possible for a quartet), this is perhaps no bad thing; it leaves us with the hope of a full-scale production as well as a better world in which to stage it.