The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Adapted by Jethro Compton from the short story by Dorothy M Johnson
Jethro Compton in association with Park Theatre
Park Theatre 200
Never seen the film nor read the story? Nor had I, but I knew the title, and Dorothy M Johnson’s brief tale is considered a classic of its kind.
It is a tale of the Wild West with a difference set in 1890 in a lawless little town in the middle of nowhere called Two Trees. Jethro Compton’s stage version isn’t a faithful transposition but his own version, though staying true to the spirit of the original, and like it bookending the action with the visit of a prominent politician to Two Trees to attend a funeral then telling the backstory.
It is set in the bar run by Hallie Jackson, put on stage in bottle-lined splendour by designer Sarah Booth, though despite its detail we don’t see many customers and those who do appear never dip into their pockets to pay. You can’t help wondering how Hallie manages to survive—though Niahm Walsh imbues her with such a lively, charismatic personality and she and her black help Jim always appear so busy that you easily forget about that.
This is tough territory. Hallie’s parents are dead, her brothers killed in a shoot-up, the local lawman Marshal Johnson is ineffective (Robert G Slade makes him an almost endearing comic coward) avoiding confrontation with sharpshooter Liberty Valance who with his gang can get away with anything.
Eastener Ransome Foster is on his way West when he is beaten up by Valance and his gang. Bert Barricune finds him and saves his life by bringing him into town to Hallie’s bar where she nurses him back to health and he teaches her and Jim to read. When Valance finds out that has tragic consequences.
In some ways it's a cliché Western story but with a twist or two, and what theatre lover wouldn’t warm to a tale in which Shakespeare’s sonnets are the key to mid-West literacy?
It is beautifully played. Oliver Lansley as Foster, Walsh as Hallie, Paul Abertson as Barricune and Lanre Malaolu as Jim build on the small amount of information given about them to create strong characters and real relationships. If James Marlowe’s Valance is much more stock character villain that’s because there is nothing in the script to build on and he is suitably sinister as befits the genre.
As director, Compton brings out the humour in his script as well as building up its melodramatic moments to create a lively entertainment that is engagingly presented.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton