4 stars out of 5
If you’re after a classy story told with added extras, a “play with music” is the way to go. This formula worked a treat for the exquisite Bob Dylan/Conor McPherson tie-up Girl from the North Country and lightning strikes twice here.
This is, astonishingly, the world premiere stage adaptation of the 1997 Annie Proulx short story, which itself gave rise to the era-defining 2005 film. As if all that weren’t enticing enough, this marks a reunion for the award-winning director/songwriter pairing behind the hit musical Everybody’s Talking about Jamie. Oh, and it also sees the West End debuts of two notable young American film acting talents, Mike Faist (West Side Story) and Lucas Hedges (Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea).
The in-the-round intimacy of the Soho Place auditorium is the perfect fit for the understated emotion of Proulx’s narrative, which sees two ranch hands in rural 60s Wyoming fall deeply into the sort of love that dare not speak its name in such a rigid and homophobic society.
Jack Twist (Faist) and Ennis Del Mar (Hedges) get summer work on the eponymous mountain tending sheep and, left alone, diffidence and taciturnity blossom into something tender and beautiful. They go their separate ways at summer’s end, but when they meet again four years later, the passion is just as intense. The only trouble is that now, both men have wives and children.
There is an intoxicating quality of eloquent stillness to Jonathan Butterell’s production of Ashley Robinson’s play (his debut, incidentally, which is quite some way to start).
In the interstices of the often wordless action comes Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, which sits at the soulful end of country and in its yearning beauty conveys the emotions that the characters so often cannot.
Eddi Reader, late of Fairground Attraction, is the Balladeer who performs the songs in a plangent voice, accompanied by a band that includes notable work from the chromatic harmonica. All of which constitutes a notably superior musical offering. Faist and Hedges – plaudits too for British actor Emily Fairn, making her stage debut as Ennis’s frustrated wife Alma – are a splendid pairing, Jack lively and hot-headed and Ennis a man of very few words but a swirling chasm of feeling, which the brooding Hedges suggests so well. The stigma of a pervasive shame culture fills the air in every scene, watched over soulfully by an older iteration of Ennis (Paul Hickey), looking back at the impossible dilemma faced by his younger self.
I say with certainty that we’ll be hearing much more of this show.