Jethro Compton, formerly the driving force behind Belt Up Theatre, has certainly earned his household name at the Fringe, bringing shows of consistent quality for years - notably with the astonishing
There is much to appreciate in how the show has been designed and put together, and the feeling of enclosure within the set is probably worth the ticket price alone.
Let no one say that Compton doesn't know how to set the mood. The panelled walls and floor, the complete roof and windows, the stalls forced onto the stage-space, all work towards eclipsing the audience within the play-world. The western tunes evoke dusty landscapes or crickets in the long grass outside; the use of wooden trunks full of earth or water to show the outdoors are wonderfully quaint and practical as pieces of staging; and the worn-in boots and jackets are just grubby enough, torn enough, to make immersion possible.
Acting is always competent, and sometimes brilliant: Sam Donnelly deserves special mention, never slipping from the firm charisma and heavy threat of aggression that keeps both his family and the audience at a wary distance – though he also benefits from having the most developed character. One wonders what co-stars Jonathan Mathews and Bebe Sanders might have achieved if they had more substance to grapple with. As it is, the play as a whole seems to skim over any meaningful character depth and instead sticks to the same worn-out soap-opera drama wheeled out on an episode of Hollyoaks. The brevity of each scene leaves little room for sustained emotional development or suspense, so that moments of love, courage, or triumph seem to appear from nowhere.
Much of the dialogue is satisfyingly snappy, while the best of its cowboy banter is neatly reminiscent of Joss Whedon's Firefly. Indeed, there is usually enough verbal juggling to carry the clichés. But the large themes of love and loyalty, agency and nature, greed and contentment, are all bandied around so easily that much of the dialogue seems too big for the characters' mouths. The most distinctive aspect of the show would have been the setting, but everything in the play – whether in the set, design, plot, or dialogue – predominately serves as a reference to the genre and setting it does homage to. There is no new story here, nothing that hasn't been explored before. Compton has set out to make a western, and forgotten to make any art.
For the script is so busy deploying effective conventions that it gets mired down in tropes. The single actress allowed onstage plays all the usual female roles: the submissive wife, the reluctant mother, the domestic worker. The few shreds of agency tossed to her at the play's conclusion are a sorry attempt to cover up some naively sexist writing – a far cry from the inspiring women from his Bunker Trilogy. The ending attempts to tie its themes together in a messy gunslinging clash that convinces no one, while the use of the chapel seems like pointless symbolism, grafted into the play to help the set-decoration make more sense across the trilogy, rather than being intrinsic to the story.
By all means, go to see it, or its sister shows. There is much to appreciate in how the show has been designed and put together, and the feeling of enclosure within the set is probably worth the ticket price alone.