Sunday 18 May 2014

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Park Theatre, London


Written and directed by Jethro Compton
Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson

Paul Albertson

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a classic Western, released in 1962, immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece for both its director John Ford and its legendary stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda and since then recognised by the US Library of Congress as being a film of Cultural Significance. The tale revolved around the expansion of the (to be) US territories as the pioneers headed west, encompassing the lawlessness and elementary justice of the time. It also interweaved a well crafted love story and aspects of political compromise, against a backdrop of tumbleweed, saloon bars and much whiskey. Like the fine distillation of a spirit, the ridiculously talented and at 25 young, Jethro Compton (who also directs) has taken the movie’s plot, retaining most key milestones and adding a couple of new ones. The end result is a play that condenses a cinema-scoped canvas into a compelling drama that is set entirely within a saloon bar. It’s an astounding script, tightly written, that provides a thrilling, moving and entirely credible glimpse of quite how Wild the West (and how horrifically racist the South) was.

In the town of Two Trees, where “the sun is hot but the salsa is hotter” a bruised Ransome Forest is brought in badly beaten, having been rescued by rancher Bert Barricune. Hallie Jackson, assisted by her black servant boy Jim Mosten runs the saloon and tends to Forest’s wounds. It emerges that Forest is an educated man from the North East and we see him put down roots in Two Trees, where he teaches the illiterate Jackson and Mosten. The play follows the subtly complex love that develops between the landlady and her Eastern tutor as Barricune’s jealousy smoulders.

There’s a telling line in the play: “bring in education, there follows legislation”. Many folk in the South could not abide the concept of educated black people and Forest’s education of Mosten soon attracts the attention of the racist gang-leader Liberty Valance. To say more would be to spoil, but it is to Compton’s credit that he manages the suspense as well as the morality and love interest with mature aplomb. His writing is at all times exciting, masterful and often gripping.

The performances are faultless throughout. Oliver Lansley is Foster and he nails the portrayal of a caring liberal, committed to a cause yet useless with a gun. Late in the tale, Lansley’s character is elected Governor and Lansley subtly picks out the oleaginous nature shared by all in political office. Paul Albertson’s Barricune could almost suggest the work of a man who has been playing cowboys all his life. His gun-slinging yet complex character is a masterful portrayal that is as weathered and leathered as the coat he wears. (With a nod to fabulous costume work from Jessica Knight). Bringing up the leads, Niamh Walsh is Jackson with another performance of finely observed perfection, convincing as a young woman wise beyond her years. 

Outstanding in support, Lanre Malaolu is Mosten. Capturing the honest enthusiasm of his character and later his blind terror as he recognises the inevitability of his fate, it’s a performance that mixes humour with tragedy and Malalou is unquestionably a young actor who is one to watch. James Marlowe is the bad guy Liberty Valance. Understated chilling menace permeate his scenes, with a combination of vocal work, poise and timing (all skills shared by the rest of the company, to be fair) that create a frighteningly recognisable image of the racist ugliness of America’s South. Sarah Booth’s elegantly detailed saloon bar set, complete with an upstairs landing and swing doors that are gloriously authentic and without a hint of kitsch, stylishly completes the suspension of our disbelief.

Currently this show ranks as my best of 2014. Tightly written and with electrifying performances (that include the coolest of pre-recorded narrations from screen legend Robert Vaughn) it is a work of first-class stagecraft that provides a well observed history lesson into not only how the West was won, but in how the USA was formed. Not to be missed and deserving of a transfer.

Runs to 22nd June 2014

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