The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Park Theatre)

A classic tale from the American West receives its stage premiere

Oliver Lansley as Ransome Foster
Oliver Lansley as Ransome Foster

Can a Western survive without the West? In Jethro Compton‘s smart adaptation of Dorothy Johnsons’ original short story (rather than John Ford’s more famous film of 1962) the action is relocated to a single set – the saloon bar of a small town.

The bar is low on adornment but long on atmosphere: they only serve whisky and beans here, the slender stools seem steadier after they’ve been violently upturned, and the swing doors melt into an impenetrable bronze haze. The only things missing might be the ‘Wanted’ posters on the walls – but then this production is a homage rather than a pastiche – and besides, the feared outlaw Liberty Valance (James Marlowe) runs this town, and he mightn’t take kindly to that sort of legalistic meddling.

After gruff cowboy Bert Barricune (Paul Albertson) rescues law student Ransome Foster (Oliver Lansley) from the desert after a beating by Valance, he takes the young man to the bar of spikey Hallie Jackson (Niamh Walsh) to recuperate. Ransome decides to stay on, teaching Hallie and her illiterate black bar-boy Jim (Lanre Malaolu) to read, and falling in love with the barkeep – even though Bert too, considers Hallie ‘his girl’. Meanwhile Ransome’s choice of students also concerns Valance, and before long multiple showdowns loom.

Like the film the action is a long flashback bookended by a character’s return to town for a funeral. Here however the drama is somewhat unfortunately lopsided, the climax to the first act is sufficiently powerful that it makes much of the story that follows seem either trivial or even outright callous. It’s difficult to say more without plot-spoiling, but the tonal reset applied after the interval seemed at some remove from the action.

This is a pity because apart from this unevenness, Compton’s script is often first rate with a propulsive love triangle and several vivid and tense set pieces. The only false notes land when Robert Vaughn‘s folksy voiceover intruded, adding little to the story but reminding me strongly of the cowboy narrator of the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski; I kept expecting a hay bale to come skipping across the stage.

And yet, following the extraordinary HBO series Deadwood – the political premise for which is in many ways similar to the setting of this story – I was still hoping for a bit more than this slightly nostalgic reworking. For all that Compton updates the Western (Hallie is a lot tougher here than her film equivalent) he has also imported a few of the genre’s weaknesses, including moments of twee sentimentality that seem curiously unreal.

The acting is largely strong, a couple of wavering accents apart. Niamh Walsh and Paul Albertson are both delightful, though it’s Lanre Malaolu who threatens to steal the show with a performance both powerful and nuanced, that makes every word count.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance continues at the Park Theatre until 22 June