Last year, Jethro Compton’s critically-acclaimed Bunker Trilogy took us deep into the atmospheric trenches of World War I to experience some classic tales as never before. Now Compton transports us to an equally dangerous but very different territory – the wild, wild west.
Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, which then became a renowned film, this is a classic Western. We’re dropped straight into the atmosphere of Twotrees: a whisky-drinking, boot-clomping, gun-toting, cowboy-drawling and saloon door-swinging kind of town. Compton’s love of this genre is evident everywhere, and the production becomes almost cinematic in quality, from the lovingly detailed set to the twanging soundtrack to the somewhat cheesy voice-over – although there is something rather wonderful about hearing the familiar tones of Robert Vaughan echoing through this north London venue.
However, Compton’s adaptation of Liberty Valance for the most part treads the right side of the line between loving homage and cliché. On paper, the characters may appear stereotypical – the beautiful and tomboy-ish Annie Oakley-esque figure of Hallie Jackson, who gets her ‘Cinderella’ transformation moment in a pretty dress; or the gruff, leather jacket-wearing cowboy Bert Barricune, who struggles to show his emotions but comes good in the end. However, in part thanks to the undeniable talents of Compton, and also to an impressive cast who give these figures sparkling life, the audience immediately gets on board with this tale of an East Coast city man who turns up in the small-town mid-West. What could be clichés mostly feel like affectionate nods to the lasting power of the genre, and a familiar sense of adventure warms the show rather than stiffens it.
Having said this, there are also intelligent decisions here that do add scattered subtlety. As in Compton’s previous work, live unaccompanied song is used to create moving transitions between scenes and a haunting soundscape, while an oft-used motif of the dice game to decide a character’s fate is presented with a wonderful, seemingly impossible combination of tension and inevitability.
There are some fantastic performances on display. Niamh Walsh shines as Hallie Jackson, and is matched by the talented Lanre Malaolu as Jim ‘The Reverend’ Mosten. James Marlowe as Liberty Valance himself is rather like Bill Sikes transported to the wild west – all leering and smirking violence – but still pulls off a terrifically fun turn as the menacing villain of the piece, despite occasional wavers in his accent. Oliver Lansley is slightly let down by the script at times in Act II, but makes a convincing Ransome Foster, in particular making a hilariously brusque proposal.
After the interval, the show sadly loses some of the fizz and crackle that drives Act I so successfully. It seems that too much of the action is packed into the first half, leaving the second a little empty with scenes that drag. The script isn’t quite as tight as in earlier scenes, and begins to feel rather over-indulgent.
Somehow, however, these faults are all forgiveable: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may not reach the same heights of originality and magic as The Bunker Trilogy, but this is undoubtedly a successful theatrical presentation of a classic film genre – no mean feat in itself. It revels in its heritage while retaining dramatic power, and is joyous in its yarn-spinning. The show surmounts its niggles to become an enjoyable night of theatre with a set of fine performances, and will surely enjoy a popular run at the lovely Park Theatre – and not just for the free whisky.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is playing at the Park Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.
Photo by Jethro Compton Ltd.