“There is a new face on the frontier”
Westerns have never been my thing so The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was all brand new information for me. Jethro Compton’s production uses Dorothy M Johnson’s original short story as its primary source material rather than the more famous film and purely by virtue of putting a Western on a stage, possesses something unique as it is a genre that has barely been touched, at least in my memory, by any London theatre. And it is also a surprisingly effective treatment that makes it one of the more atmospheric shows of the year.
Compton errs towards something of a cinematic style – Jonny Sims’ music swoops around the theatre, Robert Vaughan’s voice as a narrator guides us through the story, and Sarah Booth’s single set design contains all the action, told as it is largely in flashback. The plot doesn’t hold too much surprise so I’ll say little about it here but the play is best when it focuses on the love triangle between Oliver Lansley’s lawyer Ransome Foster, Niamh Walsh’s illiterate bar owner Hallie and Paul Albertson’s Barricune who rescued Ransome from a tight spot.
James Marlowe’s Liberty Valance is a sinister villain but not a well-written one which is a shame as it meant the tone of the show never quite got as dark as it might have and in some cases, is almost twee in its sentimentality (something again due to the structure). But it is a novel idea, well executed and by all accounts, an excellent example of adaptation that actually adds to the original.