Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Westernized!

Nathan Smith
Death By Pie
The Saloon, 53 Two, Manchester
18 July 2018 to 28 July 2018

 

Not content with just two theatres, 53 Two now has a ’pop up’ Saloon in their car park. A tent with a functional bar plays host to Nathan Smith’s Westernized!.

Staging a tribute to the Wild West in a frontier style venue is an idea that might have looked good on paper to but gives rise to considerable environmental challenges. Summer nights mean the limited lighting is not an issue but there is no getting around the fact that The Saloon has been erected under a railway line and close to a road junction. The show is taking place during the limited period when, incredibly, trains are running as scheduled, so there is a dreadful racket throughout the performance. It brings an unwanted tension to the show, with the cast aware of the noise and the audience trying politely to pretend it is not an obstacle.

A desperate bunch of characters meet in bar in the Wild West. Each is so determined to tell a story they are willing to kill for the privilege. To avoid slaughter it is agreed that all the stories will be merged into a single tale of an epic poker game in a whorehouse that is interrupted by a Native American intent on vengeance. But a visitor has murder on his/her mind.

Death By Pie specialise in low budget inventive slapstick and Westernized! opens with cheap and cheerful handwritten paper captions introducing the cast. Although set in the Wild West, Nathan Smith does not limit his affectionate parodies to the Western genre; the show opens with a Tarantino-style Mexican stand-off and includes nods to ‘Back to the Future’ and’ Fawlty Towers’.  There is a sense of throwing in jokes and hoping they work whether they fit the Western theme or not.

Smith is aware that slapstick alone can become shallow and satirises the more unsavoury aspects of the era with female characters being ignored and assumptions made that their only concerns are cooking and cleaning. He directs as well as writing the script and, in the first Act, takes the self-conscious approach of acknowledging flaws in the plot. At one point a whole range of characters are introduced in minutes with the stated intention of establishing some red herrings to obscure the identity of a suspect. It is a fine way of drawing in the audience but slows down the pace. It is not until the second Act that momentum builds to allow the gags to run smoothly without interruption.

Westernized! is not a musical but a comedy with songs . The songs are expositional in nature, pushing the plot along and setting out motivations. As a result of budget limitations such features as fiddles are absent so the songs are closer to basic folk than to Country and Western.

The six members of the cast (including the writer/director) push themselves to the limit to make the show work, assuming multiple roles and enduring comic indignities. The stand-out is the petite Hannah Hobley who is capable of swinging from a breathless innocence to a brazen cynicism in seconds.

The success of Westernized! is limited by the environmental conditions but it remains a well-performed and affectionate tribute to a vanished age that does not shy away from addressing the less pleasant aspects of the period.

Reviewer: David Cunningham