Stetsons and Skulduggery: ‘The Barn Swallows’, A Review.
Stetsons and Skulduggery: ‘The Barn Swallows,’ A Review.
Experimenting with ‘a genre under-represented in theatre,’ nurse-turned-playwright Helen Jones penned a feminist-Gothic-Western for Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre. Were all the hyphens worth the hype? One Ellipsis writer pulled on her cowboy boots and moseyed off to find out…
1875. Fort Griffith, Texas. A lawless, Wild West town of Stetsons, saloon bars and skulduggery. Distinctly androgynous bounty hunter Dani/ Danny (played by Reyna Gaia) has just had a trophy body stolen from its coffin. Enter stranger Robert Frost; not the poet, but a teacher-cum-detective with a penchant for Arthur Conan Doyle, intent on solving the Conundrum of the Corpse Gone A-Missin’ (alongside introducing the town of illiterates to a dictionary). Sarsaparilla, loving sheriff Angus is looking decidedly shifty, as are local louts Dylan and Abe. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Dan(i/ny) is haunted by past events and childhood ghosts. An intriguing mystery? Check. A line-up of potential suspects? Check. A plaid shirt (or several)? Check (check, check, check).
Two scenes in, rising action established, and Freytag would be proud. Remember, though, as Sherlock Holmes-enthusiast Frost quotes: ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.’ Despite having been transplanted from 221b Baker Street to the American back-yonder, The Barn Swallows has a definite hint of Holmes about it. (Elementary, my dear Texans.)
What is novel about the Helen Jones-penned production is its exploration of the oft-forgotten woman of the patriarchal Wild West society. ‘Body snatching’ as a phrase acquires double resonance. Ostensibly, it is the cause of the whole ole-Jessurt-corpse-gone-walkabouts situation. It is also what the play’s ladies have to endure. Not once, but twice, do they fend off rapes: one of which perpetrated by the local law-enforcer. Add to this the casual verbal slights, asides about the ‘inferior female mind,’ and you would expect the townswomen to be thoroughly downtrodden. Yet it is they who get the play’s first and last word, quite literally. It opens with a scene of sibling confrontation between two sisters, and closes with an all-female duologue in the form of the reading out of letters. Behind the scenes is a solely female creative team: producer, director, playwright. Fittingly for these #MeToo times, as well as its staging over both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, the play is bookended by the female. For its feminist credentials, then, it gets a definite tick.
Also, there’s one for its (admittedly sparse) use of props- the empty coffin cleverly crops up in various guises throughout: a plinth, seat, a spit- shone table. (Actually, the play makes much of expectoration. ‘True Spit’ would work just as well as a title.) Sporadically-strewn hay and upturned wooden crates litter the stage for the duration, evoking the setting of a dilapidated tumbleweed town, but otherwise the staging is kept to a minimum. This keeps the focus firmly on the characters. Effective though this was, the backing digital screen was somewhat neglected, only used for the text of a quick historical resume at the play’s outset. Why it remained there throughout, devoid of even a cactus by way of visual scene-setting, is yet another mystery to be solved.
While I’m griping, I found the faux-American drawls a little grating, too. Some were better than others, but overall it was a little more Wayne Rooney than John Wayne. Still, at least they did try, y’all. Questionable accents aside, in Hope Street Theatre’s intimate setting- just a rickety one-hundred-and-fifty seats or so- it was impossible not to engage, and even empathise, with the whole gamut of characters. Best of all was Alice, formidable inn-owner and matriarch-extraordinaire, all howdy and chutzpah with a soft grey doughnut of a bun plonked on top. In fact, another character described her just as I would the last doughnut in the packet: ‘Soft and round… Wholesome… So lonely.’
The script-writing throughout was extremely lyrical, with lines moving from poignant to pithy. ‘You’re as slow as black treacle off a cold spoon,’ cawed one character in Roast Battle-worthy style. Another countered with a reference to their adversary’s genitalia being like ‘a tequila worm.’ Script- writer Helen Jones currently works full-time as a nurse in Liverpool’s Walton Centre, yet is hoping to transition to a creative-oriented career post-retirement. Perhaps she is possessed of Hermione’s Time Turner, because alongside job and hobby she somehow also manages some stand-up comedy gigs- no doubt the inspiration for those Western one-liners. In an interview with the Wirral Globe, she spoke of the Western as ‘a genre under represented in theatre,’ unlike that of the musical or comedy.
With The Barn Swallows, though, what she has created is less a Western than a feminist-Gothic-Western-comedy-mystery. There’s even a touch of romance in there too (but thwarted, so satisfyingly un-soppy). It certainly has more potential genres than suspects, so when the audience solve the riddle a good few scenes prior to the characters on-stage, they are left feeling smart and perhaps a little smug too. No Moffat-Gatiss-style Sherlock 180s, for which all were grateful. The show’s strapline was ‘On the twisted road out of Hell you might just find out who you really are.’ Turns out I am someone who likes a semi-transparent plotline that makes me feel like a super sleuth in guessing the outcome. Minus deerstalker. Plus Stetson.