The Letter Room have a ballad to tell. It’s a form suited to extreme emotion and unlikely plot turns, both of which Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo) delivers. Like an anti-Faust of the Wild West, the eponymous (and unexpectedly female) Johnnie makes a deal not with the devil but with the wind, staking her heart on the faith that she can find a wellspring of good in her parched desert town. There’s a storm coming, and if Johnnie succeeds the wind will rein in her assault. But fail and the whole town will be obliterated.
If it sounds a tad confusing, that’s because it is. It’s an odd little story, and an odd little show. The company dive headlong into the unapologetically strange narrative they’ve created, starting in the middle and hastily explaining backwards. Johnnie, we soon discover, lost her father exactly a year ago in a suspicious accident. From here, the plot thickens and thickens, introducing one dastardly villain after another. It’s definitely not poor Johnnie’s day.
The purpose of it all is sometimes hard to grasp. There’s a dig at greed and corporate expansion in the form of the land developing cabal who removed Johnnie’s father from the picture, but these grasping baddies are too cartoonishly evil to make any sort of wider point. The convoluted plot is more than a little shaky, as is the fiddly staging. Gorgeous as the design is, instantly evoking Johnnie’s dustbowl surroundings, the drawing back and forth of its fabric walls quickly becomes distracting, while the shadowplay that dances across these surfaces needs tightening up.
But it’s the music that stops Five Feet in Front from being just another forgettable Fringe oddity. The Letter Room sell the show as a “bone shaking hoedown” and they can’t be accused of breaking that promise. The six-strong cast all double up as musicians, juggling an impressive array of instruments as they lend their voices to Johnnie’s tale. Even bodies become part of the band, as when Johnnie and the wind stomp out a storming (forgive the pun) tap duet.
If the foot-stamping score doesn’t quite make up for the flaws elsewhere, it does announce an exciting and multi-talented young company. For now, they are brilliant storytellers lacking a brilliant story, but when narrative catches up to aesthetic The Letter Room could well be a formidable force.