The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Sat 25th June to Sat 2nd July
Journey into the Wild West in this classic story of good versus evil, law versus the gun, one man versus Liberty Valance. A tale of love, hope and revenge set against the vicious backdrop of a lawless society. A young scholar from New York city travels west in search of a new life; he arrives beaten and half-dead. A local girl gives him purpose in a broken land, but is it enough to save him from the vicious outlaw who wants him dead? He must make the choice: to turn and run, or to stand for what he believes, to live or to fight; to become the man who shot Liberty Valance.
We're in a one-roomed bar in a one-horse town. And we stay there for almost the entire evening, venturing out on to the dusty street only briefly. No wide open spaces. No galloping horses, stampeding cattle or plodding wagon trains.
Welcome to the Wild West confined by the limitations of theatre. Physically that is. Good theatre can be mentally more stimulating than munching though a bag of popcorn while gazing at a big screen on which men are punching, shooting and occasionally lynching one another in wide open spaces.
Nothing illustrates that better than 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'. The original 1962 film was directed by John Ford. And, yes, it had big stars in John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin. Yet the Criterion's production of Jethro Compton's play makes the film seem so last century.
Rather than try to re-write the movie for theatre, Compton adapted a 25-page short story by Dorothy M Johnson. The result is a taut and gripping play focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the main characters. It also explores how far legislation can go in curbing long-cherished "freedoms" - an issue that still resonates in the United States today.
Pete Meredith looks more the part Ransome Foster than an ageing James Stewart ever did. He captures the youthful idealism of the New York law student slumming it out West as he tries to bring some civilisation to small-town America. By turns he is earnest, charming, crass and ungainly, But he's ultimately successful in transforming the life of the illiterate, whisky-slugging bar owner Hallie Jackson (Ruth Herd).
By bringing extracts from the Bard to the bar, Foster also gives a new lease of life to the black bar-tender Jim Mosten, impressively played by Alexander Mushore. All too briefly as it turns out. His ability to quote Shakespeare word-perfectly on hearing every lilting line is brutally cut short by Liberty Valance and his menacing gang.
Sean Glock gives us the vanity of Valance as well as the swaggering charm that coats the psychopath within. Compare and contrast with Bert Barricune, "the fastest gun north of Canyon Falls" but a man with an entirely different set of moral values. In the film John Wayne played him as he played all roles: as John Wayne. Jon Elves is far more convincing as Barricune, fast of hand yet broodingly weighed down by the pressures on his heart and conscience.
Susan Schweitzer's clever stage management makes the most of Terry Cornwall's evocative and surprisingly adaptable set design. And, last but not least, Matt Sweatman's direction brings the best out of a well chosen cast and adds some clever touches to Compton's adaptation. No, he's not the John Ford of Earlsdon but then this production is not cinematic; it's theatrical in the best sense of the word.
*The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is at the Criterion until Saturday July 2.
One Small Stage: One Great Play
Review by Nick Le Mesurier
Like many a classic form, the western is rarely seen these days, certainly on stage. Which is a pity, because it places the drama of human emotions on a universal scale like no other.
The play starts with a funeral. The place is Twotrees, a two-bit town way out west. The time is 1910. The man in the box is Bert Barricune, a nobody whose story, told in flashback, is a great as any classical hero's. In attendance is Ransome Foster, a US Congressman. What brings him here?
We soon find out. Twenty years before, Foster was carried into town by Barricune, half dead after being beaten up by Liberty Valance and his men. Foster is a man of culture, a drifter in his own way, searching for opportunity. He finds it in the appetite the townspeople have for learning, which he brings, especially to Hallie Jackson (Ruth Herd), owner of the local saloon, and to Jim 'The Reverend' Mosten (Alexander Mushore), Hallie's black servant. Jim has a rare gift, an eidetic memory that can snap up whole chunks of Shakespeare. Foster's presence in the town heralds the arrival of civilisation.
But of course there are those who like things as they are, not least Liberty Valance himself. Sean Glock plays him as the devil incarnate, a smooth and handsome charmer, for whom the town is but a plaything.
Then there's the man in the middle, Bert Barricune, whose portrayal by Jon Elves can only be described as touched with greatness. Barricune is a complex character, who finds his moment of genius in the sacrifice of something much greater than his life.
The acting in this production is powerful, deep, intelligent. Alexander Mushore is heart rending as the doomed Jim, and the scene when he confronts Valance racks up the tension almost beyond bearing. Ruth Herd is everything a true heroine should be: beautiful, tragic, defiant, vulnerable. The love triangle between her, Foster and Barricune is utterly convincing.
Though labelled a thriller, this is really a classical drama, ripe with existential conflicts such as the worth of a man's life. They are entirely relevant in this context, and are the more powerfully evoked for being shown on the small stage.