"Fringe Western Outshoots West End!"
by Peter McCrohon for remotegoat on 04/10/18

Being a western afficionado and a fan of writer Jethro Compton's other work in this genre, namely his masterly adaptation of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which I was fortunate enough to see in a park theatre production, I was pre-dsposed to like this production of The Frontier Trilogy.

Sitting down in the intimate surroundings of a black box set at the Hen & Chickens theatre, I was impressed to see a simple but evocative set consisting of a a side wall of wood with a latched door and a chapel lay out with an altar and two rustic wooden benches and the floor dominated by a projected blood red cross (Kudos to designer Donald Bennett). So far, so good.

The Frontier Trilogy is made up of three genre related plays and linked by the common setting of a chapel and it's blind priest, Father Manoah who is the sole character to appear in all three pieces, played by an always quietly convincing Matt Greenbank. at an hour per play with two ten minute intervals this is a trilogy of epic proportions and luckily, it is nearly always absorbing and engaging.

I was a little disconcerted at first by an absence of any scene setting music but this appeared to be a directorial decision as scene changes were denoted by the motif of characters singing snatches of period song, which worked for the most part, as the cast were blessed with strong or lyrical voices.

For a fringe play in a small studio space it might have been more economically effective to use less than ten actors, but this was a strength of the production. Such was the quality and depth of talent in this cast that it was a delight to discover each new actor and each new character as the evening progressed. The detailed and nuanced performances from the cast were worthy of the utmost praise and this, along with some adroit staging was a credit to the admirable directors, Darren Barsby and Kim Southey.

The accents, tricky for British actors, were faultless and costumes, save for a few forgivable inaccuracies, were good. No amateur musical society check shirts here!

All was not perfection, however. In fact the first play, Blood Red Moon, if you'll forgive the pun, was a bit of a bum steer.

Two brothers, Enoch (Rhys Tee- Brutish) and Levi (David Ellis- Sweet) come to California to stake a claim in the gold rush. All is well, until a woman comes between them. The outstanding performer in this opener for me, was Josie Melton. Her performance as Annelise being compellingly watchable and conveying so much in both verbal and non verbal communication. The plot, though, resembled nothing so much as a western soap opera, featuring as it did, a husband with a drink problem, a love triangle between a woman and two brothers and plenty of histrionics along the way. in fact a problem with all three pieces was a slight tendency to be over-bombastic when dealing with emotion.

Fortunately, the next play, The Clock Strikes Noon, hit the ground running, literally, as two men burst in, retreating from a hail of bullets and barracking themselves in from a pursuing band of gunnies on their trail, their ultimatum being sign over their land to the interests of Lillian Davenport (Georgina Bennett- powerful and seductive) and the all powerful American Pacific Railroad or lose their lives.

A brilliant and contrasting double act ensued with Ashton Spear's strong, compact man of the soil and Mark Haumann's cowardly, lean and comedic Sherriff Jackson. First rate work from both men.

Finally, there was The Rattlesnake's Kiss, the most complex of the three plays, starting in the same chapel then flashing back to events that took place fifteen years before and ultimately showing us that people and events are not always what they seem. Jack Collard excelled in this piece as a cool, insouciant then righteously angry U.S Marshall on the trail of a killer, whilst David Ellis assayed his second role of the evening, a broad but enjoyable cameo as a villainous henchman and Zoe Lambrakis anchored things as a feisty but warm hearted former lady of the night. Completing the cast was Brian Merry , bringing an air of unhinged menace to the twisted father figure and gang leader Theodore Leon in an atmospheric scene illuminated by eerie candlelight in a subterranean cavern.

These plays can be watched and enjoyed simply as an homage to the old west , but have much to say besides, offering insights verging on Greek tragedy such as: Can we escape our fate or does a 'bad seed' doom us before we are even born? Or, Can we truly change and be redeemed, even from terrible actions?

In summation, this fringe production punches well above it's weight and unequivocally deserves a bigger audience. It runs until the weekend and by all accounts is selling fast . Grab a ticket, if you can!

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