THE DEVIL AND BILLY MARKHAM. Written by Shel Silverstein. Directed by Jenine Collocott. With James Cairns. Presented by Contagious Theatre. Kalk Bay Theatre.
KAREN RUTTER reviews
When you gamble with the Devil, the house always wins. Or does it …?
Shel Silverstein’s raunchy, rollicking saga about the epic battle between a dice-throwing bluesman and Beelzebub has more turns than a lamb roasting on a spit. The Devil and Billy Markham takes a concept that has been explored in a number of different genres – selling one’s soul to the devil – and gives it a couple of scalding twists. Firstly, it’s in the form of a poem, in iambic pentameter. As in: “The Devil walked into Linebaugh’s on a rainy Nashville night/While the lost souls sat and sipped their soup in the sickly yellow neon light.” Yes, it rhymes. But it’s unlike any poem you learnt at school (unless you were doing Charles Bukowksi – which is probably not).
Secondly, it doesn’t tread a conventional path. The rule is, the Devil always comes up tops, right? Not so here, where the action moves from hell to heaven and then back again, with a few stops on earth in between.
And thirdly – it ain’t all that clear who’s right and who’s wrong in all of this. As Billy is told by his nemesis: “I am God – sometimes – and sometimes I’m the Devil, good and bad, just like you.”
All of which makes for complete engagement during the 60 minutes it takes for this poem-on-steroids to play out.
“All the joys of flesh and gold”
James Cairns plays Billy Markham, the Devil, the Narrator and bit characters inbetween in the epic tale about a down-on-his luck blues musician who takes the Devil up on his challenge to throw the dice. If Billy wins, he gets “all the joys of flesh and gold”. But if he loses, his ass belongs to Lucifer. Along with his soul, of course. And so the games begin …
It’s hard to actually envision any actor other than Cairns taking on this challenge. A corporeal chameleon, his ability to change characters, to slip in and out of the different shades a multi-persona-performance like this requires, is phenomenal. One minute he’s the brash but vulnerable Billy Markham, a loser who still has a shot at redemption; next, he’s an oily, sneaky, seductive Satan; and then he’s carrying the narrative along as a hyperactively verbose Narrator.
It’s a masterful performance, very skillfully managed by director Jenine Collocott, who clearly knows how to pace the stamina of her charge and never overdo things. Also: nice touch, the music interludes and accompaning dance moves.
The result cannot be faulted. The Devil may not always win, but this actor generally does. It’s another James Cairns tour de force, and I’d urge you to catch The Devil and Billy Markham at the Kalk Bay Theatre as soon as you can.
What: The Devil and Billy Markham
Where and when: Kalk Bay Theatre from 10 to 21 July 2018
Book: Kalk Bay Theatre