CNova is a beautiful venue; harbouring grand ghosts. The wide and stony staircases and dark panelling make sure the drama starts at the door and the circular balconies and dome ceiling finish the picture as you make the climb up to Studio 7. You can easily imagine an older world within these walls.
Jethro Compton is very accomplished writer and director. His work with Belt Up are among some of my most favourite pieces of theatre. The Boy James in particular still composes itself vividly in my memory, held more firmly by the presence of Steven Fry in the audience with us – we played ‘stuck in the mud’ together.
I have come to the opening night of Compton’s Wild West trilogy; The Frontier. A three-part story of gun metal, old enemies and blind preachers. Based on biblical tales, The Frontier Trilogy enlightens as much as it entertains.
In my opinion, these plays are the epitome of Edinburgh Fringe theatre and Compton’s approach to economic and sustainable productions is truly admirable. What we have here are three distinct plays, each working quite happily as stand-alone stories. However, I would bet a pound to a pinch of salt that if you were to go to one, you would clear your schedule to see the rest.
Compton writes with an unparalleled majesty, and how he crams so much into one hour is beyond me. The dialogue is pacey and engaging, growing on occasion to the borders of poetry. The longer sections of monologue are equally well crafted and packed with gravitas and primal imagery. Compton has done well to ensure that each word draws the listener further into the Western wilderness of the mid 1800s.
The composition of these three stories leaves nothing to be desired. It’s as if each play is conducted like the movement of some grander symphony; each with it’s own unique merit and tempo but truly appreciated in its entirety. Each instalment builds and lilts, crying fury waltzing along with threatening intimacy, building a delicious suspense that climaxes in a timely and explosive fashion in each episode.
There’s a devilish humour embedded in the texts, which feels totally at home amongst the violent parables. The plays are at once very dangerous and visceral, as well as being playful and charming.
The visual language is a well-balanced mix of theatrical and filmic convention. The trilogy is set within an old, dust-bowl chapel; The enveloping set, also designed by Compton, is fully realised down to the last, crooked nail. We are the congregation, sitting in pues on two sides of a traverse stage. I’ve been distracted in the past by this kind of arrangement, but my eyes were never once away from the action. It feels like we have stepped through the Silver Screen to be here; it’s a hot and dry immersion that never breaks.
This falls in no small part to the work of four superb actors. There is absolutely no weak link in this cast, they tell these stories of love, family and revenge with relish and a ferocious conviction. These are iconic characters they play; almost mythological, part archetypal and part original. They all require a rare stylishness and presence from the actor, and this cast make each one radiate. Chris Huntly-Turner as Father Manoah, holds dominion within his chapel with a tempered tyranny; at once reverent and volatile; carrying a shadowy past that is ever-present behind his sun-stained cassock. Father Manoah is the one link between the three stories, and Huntly-Turner cradles this responsibility expertly. Bebe Sanders plays three strong and treacherous characters through Fontier with fascinating detail, and is every bit as wild as The West. I particularly enjoyed Lily Davenport, the cut-throat prodigy who will stop at nothing to realise her father’s dream. Sanders commands the stage as the venomous Miss Lily, who is both callused and vulnerable. Jonathan Matthews again carries three characters with him and possess a rare and harrowing stillness. Matthews is a masterful performer, an ‘open book’ of an actor, and a joy to watch. I’d like to make special mention of Sam Donnelly, whose performances were spectacular. Donnelly switched from honest heroes to psychopathic villains with the same ease as you or I might change our socks. His characters were deep and fully realised, capturing the real pulp and style of the shows. Watch out for his Silas, who is probably the most satisfying baddie I have ever seen on stage.
The lighting and sound design for the three shows are expertly simple and employed more as a means of creating the world beyond the walls of the chapel. the speakers are hidden and the muffling from the wooden set adds to the overall believability of the soundscaping, providing an oddly effective clarity to the charging horses and encroaching steam engines. They also use a small array of live songs to gently cover the few scene changes in the final show, The Rattlesnake’s Kiss; voices are clear and strong, and the songs contribute to the storytelling nicely.
You have to tip your cap to the monopoly that Compton and his team have created; Frontier is an iconic franchise that is deeply satisfying to buy into. The Frontier Trilogy is all style and all substance; an excellent way to spend one hour, or three, according to your whims.
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