Theatre review: The man who shot Liberty Vallance at Park Theatre

Based on a short story by Dorothy M Johnson, writer and director Jethro Compton has produced a great stage version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Although there is a whole TV channel devoted to cowboy films, I can only think of Annie Get Your Gun as a stage play about the wild west so this genre is a rarity. Certainly in these parts.

It tells the tale of Ransome Foster (convincingly played by Oliver Lansley), a New Yorker with book learnin’, who is found badly beaten and abandoned in the desert by weathered cowboy Bert Barricune. He takes him to the Prairie Belle Saloon in the frontier town of Twotrees. There he recovers, teaches various picaresque characters to read, falls in love with the Calamity Jane-esque bar owner Hallie Jackson and attracts the wrath of Liberty Valance for trying to bring the values of the city to the frontier.


This is a terrific play with clever and funny dialogue (“If you bleed on my bar I will personally see to the end of your life”). It can be seen as a clash of cultures between the old and the new in a fast growing Union, a touching and tender love story, a comment on the cheapness of human life or a eulogy to a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do philosophy.

There are many moments of rich drama: the high-stakes game of dice between barman Jim and bad ‘un Valance had the audience spellbound at the mood of menace and tension created by Lanre Malaolu and James Marlowe.

Niamh Walsh’s Hallie could have been a hard role to pull off, but she steered an excellent line in avoiding cliché and instead offering conviction in her dilemma over her two suitors. Other performances were spot on: Malaolu’s Jim with his shuffling, cowed gait was excellent; Paul Albertson’s Bert was caked in prairie dust and drenched in testosterone and James Marlowe’s psycho-philosopher Valance was terrifying.

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The story was narrated in voice over by the wonderful Robert Vaughan, whose cowboy pedigree goes back to The Magnificent Seven. Production values, lighting and sound were of the usual high standard that we have come to expect at the Park.

One mystery was solved by the end of the play – who it was who shot Liberty Valance. The other remained unsolved: where on earth did Dorothy Johnson get the names for her characters? She also wrote A Man Called Horse!

Until June 22.

Rating: Four stars