Kind Hearts and Gentle People

An entertaining and informative play about 'the father of American music'

In the foyer of Derry-Londonderry’s Playhouse Theatre, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack plays in the background, setting the mood for an evening of American song.

Borrowing elements from unlikely sources such as It’s A Wonderful Life, Back To The Future and even Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, with Kind Hands and Gentle People, playwright Peter McDonald and director Anne McMaster have crafted a commendable tribute to the 'father of American music', Stephen Collins Foster.

It’s a play grounded in Foster's iconic songs. When it opens in 1864 New York, with Foster (played by Kieran Griffiths) in no mood to celebrate his success. 'Barely a shell' of his former self, he is steadily drinking himself to death.

Hearing his classic 'Oh! Susanna' on the piano causes Foster to lose his temper. It’s clear that he needs an inspirational figure to lend a hand – a sort of Clarence Oddbody, perhaps? – which comes in the form of the mysterious Brown (a suitably enigmatic performance from Martin Bradley).

Brown literally takes Foster 'back in time', and we spend the rest of the play learning about the life and times of the prolific songwriter. By play’s end, we have an idea of how such an inspirational and hardworking figure in American popular culture was reduced to a self-pitying, penniless drunk.

With the help of his father Martin, who also acts as producer, McDonald obviously spent the requisite amount of time researching Foster. The memories of the cottage he grew up in and what the death of his marvellously talented elder sister, Charlotte, did to his father William (Alan Wright in one of many roles), are only the beginning.

The time travelling device is very impressively executed, with Foster moving forward in time every time he sings one of his songs, accompanied by a pianist (Alan Wright again). It’s the songs, in addition to several monologues, that help the audience to get a handle on Foster's true cultural significance.

Perhaps said monologues are overly expository at times. For example, the references to Foster’s Irish ancestry may have been better integrated. Thankfully, the pace of the play is quick enough that this isn’t a serious problem.

At one point, too, Wright’s description of Independence Day verges on Bill Pullman mimicry, and his facial expressions during the funniest scene in the play are worthy of The Inbetweeners’ Will McKenzie – which is to say, overplayed. Yet such humourous touches add much needed levity to what might otherwise have been an unrelievedly bleak play. They also serves to make Wright the best performer in the cast.

Foster’s meeting with his brother, Dunning (Wright again) compellingly reminds both him and us of the dangers of making a living in music, especially in the days when music was not seen as a legitimate career for men. We learn, too, about the misuse of both art and artists, and get another smart reminder of the universal effect that daddy issues can have on one’s career.

Musically, a duet between Griffiths and Wright – 'Nelly Bly' – is a real highlight, as is the moment when Foster recognises a female voice (the versatile Nicky Harley) singing from off stage. It’s a pitch perfect way to end the first half. Yet neither of those can match a very jolly rendition of 'Camptown Races' on the guitar during the second act, which even the audience join in.

The thoughtful writing and clever direction should also be commended. When Foster says, 'I needed that', following 'Camptown Races', it’s clear (following a bleak scene) that we did too. And when his true love, Miss Jane (Harley), tells him that his songs won her heart, we’re hard pressed not to agree with her.

Everything culminates in a touching and haunting finale, with all four of the play’s actors singing the memorable 'Beautiful Dreamer' before they take a bow.

With its combination of music, humour and history, Kind Hearts and Gentle People is definitely one to watch. The central performance, and the music itself, ensure that Kind Hearts and Gentle People is, in the words of a fellow audience member, a 'lovely experience'.

Kind Hearts and Gentle People runs in the Playhouse Theatre until October 15, before moving to other venues. Check out What's On for more information.