A theatre production touching on the life and times of Johnny Cash? Colour me intrigued. A behind the scenes look at an iconic Country and Western singer’s life? Being shared with us from the point of view of his second wife June in From the Heart? I'm more than just intrigued, I'm ridiculously curious.
The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. Other patrons are partaking in the time honoured tradition of the intimate whisper behind cupped hands, so popular with mainstream theatre goers. Our players take their places on stage and the show starts. Initial thoughts of how simply and creatively the limited space and lighting has set the scene. This realization soon makes space as the first beautiful strum of the guitar eases us into the narrative.
This is June's story. Her life, both public and private, being laid bare. Honest. Gritty. Raw. The script has been masterfully adapted by Candice van Litsenborgh from the book ‘From the Heart’ penned by June Carter Cash herself. Under the direction of her Canned Rice Productions partner, Richard Wright-Firth, it comes to life with a good solid pace, which neither rushes the audience, nor leaves me restless. A rare feat indeed. I'm not going to weave you the story of this production. Besides not being able to do Candice's narrative justice, I just want you to see this play!
Reflecting on this theatre experience, I won't tell you that there aren't faults. I'll always endeavour to be honest, not in the brutally honest sense which can come across as overly critical, but as much for the trust which the audience puts in my opinion, as for the cast and crew to hone their skills and refine their craft. My criticisms are opinions vocalised as critiques from the ‘cannot do’ to the ‘can do’s. These ‘criticisms’ are designed to hone an already keen edge to something diabolically wicked and sharp.
Does Shannyn Fourie drop her accent? Yes, she did, and it was jarring and I don't blame her. The script alone is an already brutally paced dialogue. June is radiant on stage, right up until ‘Mr Front Row Centre’ misjudged his child size bladder capacity and stood up mid-soliloquy and stomped his way out. His return was no less off-putting for audience and cast alike. Did Shannyn rally magnificently? Yes, she did. Her performance was wonderful, well handled, and beautifully expressed, nay ‘felt’, and through the performance, shared with us. Though, there is one risk, she does at stages appear more inclined to present us June the saint rather than the sinner, which is a balance that must be guarded.
Even as I wax lyrical, it is important to mention the almost casual interactions between narrative and the perceived highlight's of the show's ultimate namesake. It does so frequently with assistance of the ever present Johnny Cash, new comer Andy Lund, who touches the audience with well thought-out solos – most impressively one song he wrote himself as a tribute to Johnny and June. With his soulful presence, he constantly punctuates these incredibly vivid memories with his soft crooning mimic of the great man. Even the ‘playlist’ is calculated to bring you back into the unfolding narrative, and goes a long way in explaining the relevance and even inspiration behind many of Cash's most beloved hits.
Did I feel Andy held back, reigning in his investment into the character? Yes. I'm not sure if there might be a fear inherent in having to emulate a role model and a desire then to hold back in case you accidently fail to live up to the expectation or possibly even surpass it? Maybe, but I want Andy to know that I believe he has so much more to give.
Please, go and see From the Heart playing at Alexander Upstairs until 5 March 2016. This dramedy is an idea whose time has come. A parallel narrative style driven by its subject matter, and not overwhelmed by the normal centre stage limelight afforded to the top of the bill Cash status. This is intelligent and emotive theatre. I'd like some more of the same. Just as some advice to those who don’t know the Johnny and June story, it may be helpful to wiki the couples journey briefly before coming to experience From the Heart, so that you don’t get lost in the fast paced reflections.