South Western

Devised and written by The Wardrobe Ensemble
The Wardrobe Ensemble
Tobacco Factory Theatres

Tom Crosley-Thorne providing the soundscape Credit: Chelsey Cliff
Jesse Jones as Walter Credit: Chelsey Cliff

It is always interesting to see what The Wardrobe Ensemble is up to. This Bristol-based theatre company has a buzz accompanying its work and this year they have produced their very own version of the famous western True Grit.

But, instead of Mattie Ross in pursuit of Tom Chaney through dangerous Indian territory for the murder of her father, we have Mae Corman (Helena Middleton) in pursuit of Walter Lucas (Jesse Jones) across the countryside. Devised and written by the company themselves, The Wardrobe Ensemble irreverently plunge their storyline into the south west of twenty-first-century England. Appropriately, instead of encountering problems with ferry crossings and horse dealers as in the original, Mae has to overcome the challenges of signal failures at Bristol Parkway, roadworks at Cabot Circus and an expired railcard on First Great Western Railways.

Introduced at the onset by Ben Vardy playing a visiting American Film Studies Professor, South Western is ingeniously staged as a series of episodes, directed by the Professor himself as if it is a Hollywood movie. The Professor narrates to set up each scene and then directs them. So, action is slowed down or frozen, for instance to allow for make up or to apply blood, or cut, to allow scene changes.

Full of references to the original, but to make the transposition from Hollywood to the south west complete, our cast come complete with Brizzle accents and, instead of crossing the remotest parts of Arkansas to find the ‘black hole gang’ and her father’s murderer, we see our heroine set off from Bristol to the very edge of the continent: The Wayfarers Arms in Land’s End.

As to be expected, and very much looked forward to, The Wardrobe Ensemble has produced an original, funny and highly physical production. Music and movement are as important as ever. Musician and composer Tom Crosley-Thorne is on stage throughout supplying the soundscape, with nods to many elements of the Hollywood originals. Choreography also has a central part with the cast energetically line-dancing their way through much of Somerset and Cornwall and involving a very acrobatic shoot out and synchronised chase scenes.

Performances from Jesse Meadows as Anne Parsley, Kerry Lovell as Liz Lucas and Tom England as Frank complete the cast. It is good to see them all again on stage and they each carry with them something of their stage characters from previous works which adds to the endearing appeal of the production and the group. Here Lovell is scary with a shotgun and Tom England the well-meaning but ineffectual policeman, drawing similarities with their characters in Education, Education, Education.

The creative decision to use the Professor to narrate and direct the production is intriguing and original, however, it does tend to interrupt the momentum of the piece. The result rather diffuses the tension and energy of the production. It is a curious choice and while interesting it does ask the question what the production might have been like without it.

Some great comedy moments, but not the group's funniest work, and without the social messages they often interweave into the whole. Nevertheless, this is a good night out for all, and especially much to reward the local audience.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

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