The stage looks the part: designer Tom Pye maximises the potential of the relatively tight, in-the-round space, with a ring of rugged, outdoor ground circling shabby living quarters. It allows the action to move seamlessly from the Wyoming mountaintop, where Jack (Faist) and Ennis (Hedges) sleep in a tent and cook over an open fire (lit, impressively, for most of the show), to the unhappy homes the men return to when separated.
Mike Faist (Jack) and Lucas Hedges (Ennis). Photo: Manuel Harlan
Dressed in near-identical plaid shirts, faded jeans and brown leather jackets and boots, Jack and Ennis size each other up before the more talkative Jack breaks down Ennis’s guard.
Playful frisking turns to romance too quickly and mechanically in Butterell’s production. While the narrative follows the beats of Proulx’s story, not enough momentum, or sexual tension, is built between the pair to have us believe, or care, about what comes next. It’s not the fault of Faist or Hedges though, who bring appropriate amounts of wry humour and gruff, pent-up passion to their roles respectively.
The desire between the pair is decently juxtaposed with Ennis’s lacklustre marriage to Alma (Emily Fairn in her West End debut, moving us with vivid confusion-turned-disappointment). Having an older Ennis (Paul Hickey) haunt the stage like a regretful spectre is a clever idea, but not enough is made of it here to have much impact.
Eddi Reader (Balladeer). Photo: Manuel Harlan
The music, too, is underwhelming. Country is a rich genre adored for its potential to evoke feelings through its lyrics, but while the band, led by musical director Sean Green, has all the right sounds – wailing harmonica, twanging guitars and powerful vocals from balladeer Eddi Reader – Sells’ mournful songs are forgettable and struggle to capture the intense longing between the pair.
Robinson’s book has some gut-punch lines, and is able to carry us through the timeline of the love affair – which spans 20 years – with anecdotal references to divorces and kids growing up. The severity of the punishment, should the romance be outed, is also laid clear, making us well aware of the risks being taken by the two men unable to 'quit' one another. All the more of a shame, then, that this devastating story of forbidden love, loneliness and longing is not more moving in its current stage guise.
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