Writer/Composer: Lucy Rivers
Director: Amy Leach
Designer: Hayley Grindle
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Annie Get Your Gun it ain’t, but Little Sure Shot is terrific fun – and a much more accurate account of the life of 19th century sharpshooter Annie Oakley than the great Irving Berlin musical. Lucy Rivers’ text takes us (with justifiable simplification) through her dirt-poor childhood, the death of her father, her time in an orphanage and as an unhappy abused skivvy, her return home and developing expertise with a gun, leading to the famous Cincinnati shooting contest with Frank Butler and, ultimately, fame with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Amy Leach’s production, in association with The Egg in Bath, has been touring community centres in Leeds and will do so again after its Playhouse run, but there is nothing of the fit-up show about the production as seen at the Courtyard. In Hayley Grindle’s designs massive wooden ribs suggest the Big Top and fancy carpeting marks out the arena floor. James Whiteside’s subtle lighting suggests a shadowy world outside the Big Top where atmospheric sounds of banjo or fiddle intensify the on-stage action.
The whole evening is framed as a performance of Buffalo Bill’s show and performed by five actors, four of them musicians switching between banjo, guitar, fiddle, double bass, harmonica and washboard – the chosen instrument of Annie (Verity Kirk) is the rifle! The expansive Andrew Whitehead, Buffalo Bill to the life, introduces the speciality acts and scenes of his famous show, but of course it’s Annie’s family that appears in the scene exemplifying the harsh life of Western farmers.
Plenty of rollicking country music, some catchy songs, show business gags and corny clowning, funny dances and silly walks, make this the jolliest show you could wish for, but serious scenes of death, poverty and life-changing decision-making are played straight, often with a touching directness. The cast expertly switch tone from scene to scene: those three chaps camping it up like mad as three excited girls at the orphanage all convince in dramatic parts. Andy Clark is quietly powerful as Annie’s father, David Leopold has an understated sincerity as Frank Butler (far distant from Howard Keel’s “Anything you can do…” brashness) and Andrew Whitehead is the sympathetic store-keeper who encourages Annie by buying the game she kills. Best of all, is the way Amy Leach directs Clark and Whitehead as the abusive employers so they are simultaneously comically grotesque caricatures and figures of real menace. Paksie Vernon, similarly, moves from conveying the conflict between strict religion and family affection in Annie’s mother to revealing the missing link between dog and human as George the Poodle.
That leaves the excellent Verity Kirk. In the sort of part that causes reviewers to fall back on the word “feisty” she conveys an appealing mix of wilfulness and respect. She is direct, unfussy, believable – and capable of the most manic stage running this reviewer can recall seeing!
Runs Until: 18th April 2015 at this venue, then tours Leeds, Belfast and Cardiff
Image Credit: Farrow Creatives