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South Western – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble

Director: Tom Brennan

Music composed and performed by Tom Crosley-Thorne

Designer: Anna Orton

Lighting: Matthew Graham 

Reviewer: Leah Tozer

Welcome to the Wild Wild South West: from gunslinging to cider, saloons to cancelled services, lone wanderers to line-dancing, giddy-up as the Wardrobe Ensemble drag us through a Western revenge voyage from Bristol through the best of the West. With all their charm, cheek, and wry wit, the Bristol-based Ensemble’s South Western is ambitious and offbeat, with all the blood, guts, and glory of any good Western.

Mae’s father was killed at the Cornish cliffs, and she’s off to avenge him: the camera tells us so, as it cuts to a close up of the vein on her temple and pans to her clenched fists. At least, it would, if this were a Western, Ben Vardy’s visiting Wyoming film professor tells us at the play’s opening. South Western works like the wildest lecture, with the professor calling the shots – ‘cut to close up’ – until the pivotal shootout: from there, it’s up to Helen Middleton’s determined, short-tempered Mae, and her imagination, to direct – and deconstruct – the showdown with crash mats and chroma-key. 

Framed by this deconstruction of the Western filmic form, South Western wittily deconstructs theatrical form too, with Matthew Graham’s ingenious lighting, Tom-Crosley-Thorne’s cinematic music characterised by thematic guitar, and our ever-commenting, popcorn-eating professor coming into focus alongside the action. It’s, if you like, a lens to analyse a perceptive artistic and political theme: what tales do we tell to protect or attack characters from our past, and are they ever as epic as we expect? From Colonel Custer to Colston, it’s something the Wild West and the South West have in common.

Yet, South Western is as playful as it is political, undercutting its drama with sardonic comedy and name-dropping many a modern-day custom, from the Megabus to Monster Munch. With an eye, ear, and accent on every idiosyncrasy of the Western and the West Country alike, from Jesse Meadows’s eccentric wanderer to Tom England’s one-eyed landlord of the legendary Wayfarer’s Arms, South Western’s cast is dead good from all angles. Completed by Jesse Jones and Kerry Lovell’s Cornish Bonnie-and-Clyde couple, the Ensemble all come out of character if the professor calls ‘cut’ and muck in to move props, perform bit-parts, or even mist blood over the casualties.

With a musician in the intermission – this time the mournful folk of Sam Brookes – and some Monster Munch offered up as a prize for the pub quiz, the performance is as inclusive as it is imaginative, with only the opening ragtag montage galloping along a little too quickly for all to keep up.

All that’s left is to buckle up, pack your pint as well as your pistol, and get ready for a rip-roaring ride that proves Wardrobe Ensemble are some of the best in the West.

Reviewed on Thursday 19 July 2018 | Image: Contributed

Devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble Director: Tom Brennan Music composed and performed by Tom Crosley-Thorne Designer: Anna Orton Lighting: Matthew Graham  Reviewer: Leah Tozer Welcome to the Wild Wild South West: from gunslinging to cider, saloons to cancelled services, lone wanderers to line-dancing, giddy-up as the Wardrobe Ensemble drag us through a Western revenge voyage from Bristol through the best of the West. With all their charm, cheek, and wry wit, the Bristol-based Ensemble’s South Western is ambitious and offbeat, with all the blood, guts, and glory of any good Western. Mae’s father was killed at the Cornish cliffs, and she’s off to avenge him: the camera tells…

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.