Tobacco Factory, Bristol – until 27 July 2018
It has been a heady time for Bristol’s The Wardrobe Ensemble, their last two Edinburgh shows have won public acclaim and Fringe Firsts and the company is now taking up residency this August at the National Theatre with the rather charming family show The Star Seekers.
So maybe they have become victims of their own success. For each new show, this dazzling young company creates now feels like an event; where the great and the good of the theatre scene mingle with a crowd who are there based on their love of the brand expecting greatness every time. So when it is only good, as South Western undoubtedly is, it can produce flutters of disappointment inside. Is this it?
Maybe the subject matter should have given notice that the latest show would lack some of the richness of the previous works. Having tackled the blossoming of teenage sexuality and baby boomers in 1972: The Future of Sex and the British comprehensive system and New Labour in Education, Education, Education, the new work is a celebration of South West heritage, from Bristol to Sedgemoor Splash, Blackdown Hills to Truro, the Pagans, landlords and officers who make up the glorious tapestries of the mystical and mirth-ical the West Country provides.
Alongside this, a loving homage to Sergio Leone and John Wayne, Stetsons and Holsters, when baddies wore black and the Sherriff restored order. The source material fits, but it just doesn’t offer the company as much to play with as previous works.
That’s not to say we don’t have a good time getting to the end result. In many ways South Western feels the obvious fourth part of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s The Cornetto film series. There is an evident love and exploration of the Western genre, right down to its firmly entrenched narrative beats, familiar to anyone who has ever settled down for a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV. So we see Mae Corman (Helena Middleton), heading across countryside to avenge the death of her father by one Walter Lucas (Jesse Jones), cooped up with wife, brother and family in the Wayfarer Arms at Lands End. Her journey throws the perils of the ‘Wild West’ at her, from rail replacement works at Parkway to roadworks at Cabot and expired young people’s rail cards that threaten to derail her journey. Her only hope of making it to her final destination/destiny seems to be the shambling wanderer Anne (Jesse Meadows), a woman with secrets in her closet and a weary eyed gaze of a world that has betrayed her. Sound familiar?
It’s smart and sharp and puts a feminist slant on the most macho of genre’s. It also has Kerry Lovell having great fun as a mad Bonnie banshee, mowing down anyone who crosses her path. There is a tint of Mischief Theatre’s Comedy About a Bank Robberyabout the way they go about framing the action, lo-fi, high energy shoot outs, mist being sprayed down on burst blood capsules to create more gore than the average Tarrantino yarn, audience interaction complete with Monster Munch at a pub quiz.
If they had left it at that we could have celebrated a non-taxing but fun night at the theatre. Yet in striving for something more, it trips up. Ben Vardy’s Professor calls the action from the side line, a lecturer of film, exploring the conventions of the Western. This, and program notes discussing narrative theory, suggest an original concept that the company originally wanted to explore but perhaps ran out of time on. It slows up the plot and isn’t witty or insightful enough. It’s a device that ultimately ends up going nowhere.
South Western is still a night well worth the cash, though it certainly isn’t as funny as either Future of Sex or Education x3. In fact, it feels much like the genre movies it tries to ape, a more than satisfactory way of burning a couple of hours but one that won’t leave any lasting feeling.
South Western plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 27 July