Friday, 23 May 2014

Theatre review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Some genres barely ever get seen on stage, and you can definitely count the Western among them. So even though I've never really been a fan of Western films, spaghetti or otherwise, I was interested to see what Jethro Compton would do with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and it turned out to be a great decision. When young lawyer Ransome Foster (Oliver Lansley) embarks on an ill-thought-out journey to the West, he ends up beaten up by outlaws in the middle of nowhere, and needing rescuing. Rance ends up recuperating in a saloon in the tiny town of Twotrees, where he falls for the landlady, Hallie (Niamh Walsh.) As an excuse to stay for a while, he agrees to teach Hallie and some of the locals to read, but his top student is Jim (Lanre Malaolu,) and the local outlaw gang led by Liberty Valance (James Marlowe) aren't too happy about a black man getting an education.

Set entirely in Hallie's saloon in Sarah Booth's effective design, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance works both as an homage to Western movies and as a way of avoiding their clichés, and is an absolute joy. Despite the story sometimes taking a darker turn the overall feeling is a lot of fun, with the fish-out-of-water central character offering plenty of opportunities for comedy, and everyone involved seeming to really love the project.

Lansley makes a very appealing lead and sparks well off the various characters Rance faces, making for a very rounded feel to the town and the story: There's the teacher/student relationship with the intelligent but previously illiterate Jim, the screwball comedy romance with Walsh's no-nonsense Hallie, and a relationship of cautious, grudging mutual respect with his rival for Hallie's affection, Bert (Paul Albertson,) the best shot North of Mexico (and that's only 'cause he's never been to Mexico.)

The show culminates in a beautifully tense encounter when Liberty Valance arrives to deliver the Kiss Kiss1 of death, only for another Western trope to be thrown out of the window, the shootout in the middle of the street replaced with a battle of wills across the table.

Compton could have done with finding five minutes or so to cut from the second act, and the recorded narration from Robert Vaughn adds authenticity but not a lot else2, but there's little more to find fault with here: Jonny Sims' music is used sparingly but has all the more haunting effect when it does burst in; and the loving attention to detail means everything is completely filthy, the floor covered in so much dust it turns to mud when Jim tries to clean it3, and Bert seeming to be covered in about an inch of grease from head to toe. This feels like a real labour of love, and it's hard not to love it back.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Jethro Compton, based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, is booking until the 22nd of June at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

1I was going to HILARIOUSLY confuse Liberty Valance with Holly Valance, and pepper my review with the titles of her many hits. Perhaps you can see where that plan hit a snag.

2but since Vaughn is still appearing, in person, in Twelve Angry Men, it means that between him and Simon Russell Beale, having the same actor perform simultaneously in two shows in different parts of London is now a bona fide 2014 theatrical meme.

3slippery mud - Malaolu did well to get himself out of what looked like it might have been a very nasty fall.

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