DONNIE and Zak are sister and brother. Zak is older and yearns to be a musician, but he knows that Donnie has more talent. She has “the voice.” Even with their old “salvaged” piano, with its critically missing middle B, you know that Donnie can sing.
It’s almost as if she was born to it – she is named after Dionne Warwick, a favourite of their mother.
Zak heads off to an apprenticeship (which we deduce is something like accountancy, given the successful “high roller” we meet later in the show).
Donnie stays in their dead-beat northern town (Moore’s End – somewhere on the edge of Saddleworth Moor perhaps?). She looks after their mentally ill mother, takes a depressing job in a library – where her rebellious spirit upsets the staid customers – and dreams of singing.
Eventually she breaks free and heads to the town’s recording studio, run by Barclay “Fats” Brown and his wife Bella. He gives her a rude brush-off.
Later she meets a homeless man with a guitar, Freeman, and rescues Bella (whom she doesn’t know) from three vicious thugs. Bella tells Barclay he must give Donnie a chance. She can not only sing, but instinctively knows what to do with a song – she spots the problem with the girl-trio that Barclay is recording and gives their song the boost it needs.
Barclay and Bella take her to a party where she sings and impresses the influential guests – but Barclay throws her to the gay wolf in sharp clothing after she rejects his advances.
So, Busk is a dark story – a very dark story, where drugs relieve misery and raise false hopes, violence sparks like lightning, and sex is sad and paid for. It’s not a whole bunch of laughs, but in this premiere of Dan Lashbrook’s first piece of music theatre it is compelling and involving.
The show is Music is Life’s third full-scale new musical – the first two were The Decent Rogues and Pencoweth, a story of fishermen, which was also staged at Cornwall’s famous Minack Theatre. It is the first that moves from traditional musical to the more demanding style of edgy contemporary music theatre.
Like the others, Busk is directed by Petra Schofield, who makes the most of the powerful story and strong characters. There are some terrific performances from the large cast, particularly from Ellen Rose Schofield as young Donnie, Fin Collinson as her brother Zak, Zoe Manifold as Bella, Steve Gibbons as Freeman and Matt Perry as Kane, the gang leader.
The success of this show hangs on the two central characters – Donnie, played by Raphaela Grimstead, and Captain, the black-hearted gay pimp, elegant to the tips of his manicured fingers and mascara’d eyelashes, played by the astonishing Ryan Hughes, who was last seen in Bath vamping it up as Felicia in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
These two are light and dark, yin and yang, innocent warmth and icy evil. Hughes dominates the stage whenever he is on – even in the opening full-cast chorus, at the back of the black-painted set, your eyes are drawn to the tall figure in the top hat, cropped white jacket and skin-tight trousers. He has the kind of charisma that Captain requires – attractive to both sexes, with a smile that can melt ice and flips to freeze hot coals.
Raphaela Grimstead’s Donnie is charming and gentle, with a steely courage – we hold our breath as she squares up to the thugs, shudder as she falls into Captain’s grasp and ache for her loneliness on the streets.
The singing is good throughout the show, particularly Who’s That Girl? by Donnie and the girls, Captain’s song with the girls, Bella’s One More Song and Donnie’s While You Are Sleeping.
As musical theatre, Busk has a lot going for it – a powerful contemporary story, well-drawn characters and some good songs. Where it falls down is in the dialogue which is occasionally clunky, at times slows the action down (for example, in the library scene) or doesn’t ring true. The undeveloped back-story about Zak and Donnie’s mother could be dropped entirely.
But there is much to praise and enjoy and Busk deserves more than a one-week run (great that it was sold out). With some dialogue tweaks to cut the running time and maintain the energy levels, it should become a show that many groups will be keen to perform.
Pictured: The full cast on stage at the start; Zak (Fin Collinson); the girls, Faith, Hope and Charity (Charly Cook, Claire Ryan and Nicole Wood); at the party, with Captain (Ryan Hughes) at left, the girls, and Donnie (Raphaela Grimstead), far right.