The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance**** (Park Theatre)

Posted: May 19, 2014 in Theatre

p.txt-2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews –

Theatre versions of well-known films have become increasingly common of late, but who would ever think of adapting a western? The wide open prairies of the American West would not be easy to replicate on a North London stage, but John Ford’s 1962 film, an acknowledged classic of the genre, is an unusually intimate piece, shot mainly in a studio on interior sets, and it undergoes the transition naturally. Bypassing the film, Jethro Compton has based his adaptation on the original 25-page short story by Dorothy M Johnson, which could have helped him to reimagine the characters and distinguish them from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and the like. Certainly the actors never seem inhibited by those long shadows and we forget about making comparisons with their film equivalents even before the end of the first scene. A British cast could also have led to problems with authenticity, but such worries are dispelled equally quickly, helped somewhat by hearing the recorded voice, as narrator, of Robert Vaughn; he is the last survivor of the original Magnificent Seven and, therefore, about as authentic as it is possible to get. Ransome Foster (Oliver Lansley), a lawyer from the East, arrives in the small Western town of Twotrees, having already taken a beating on the road from the merciless outlaw Liberty Valance (a menacing James Marlowe) and his gang. He is rescued by Bert Barricune (Paul Albertson), an ageing, gunslinging cowboy, and given refuge by the town’s saloon owner, Hallie Jackson (Niamh Walsh), who Bert believes to be his girl. Foster takes on the challenge of educating Hallie and her barman (Lanre Malaolu giving a stand-out performance), a gifted young black man nicknamed “The Reverend” because of his ability to memorise passages from the Scriptures. In the eyes of Valance, education will inevitably be followed by law and order and result in the end of his reign of terror, so a showdown between him and Foster becomes inevitable. On the face of it, this is a simple morality tale setting good against evil, but, in fact, there is much more complexity and depth to it. Barricune represents a dying breed of pioneers who had paved the way for a civilised society and Foster represents a new breed of men in suits and ties who take over the reins and drive forward to a world dominated by lawyers and politicians. The play asks which of these different codes is fairer and more honest, who are the real heroes and what separates truth from myth. A cleverly conceived and very satisfying ending highlights the ambiguities in the story and the irony in its title, bringing secondary themes to the fore. Varying the tone, the story also involves a touching love triangle, which is played out with great sensitivity. The heart sinks upon first sight of Sarah Booth’s set, a traditional saloon bar with swing doors, but fears that the play would be just another pastiche of a cinema genre so full of cliches are quickly dispelled. Compton’s script contains much natural humour, but never veers towards comedy and he shows good judgement in ensuring that sequences which could have been risible occur offstage or in darkness. Building tension for the impending arrival of Valance, the pace is slow and deliberate throughout, thesombre and reflective mood being heightened by atmospheric lighting from Julian McCready and original music composed by Jonny Sims. It would probably take around half an hour to read the original short story, so it is remarkable that there is enough in it to stretch to over two hours. But indeed there is and this version provides a consistently absorbing, often moving and very unusual evening of theatre.

Performance date: 16 May 2014

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