When writing and reading reviews, one phrase pops up more than most – “could have done with being slightly shorter”. This or a variation of the words appears a lot as playwrights and directors strive to put everything out there no matter how relevant. But this review is slightly different, as I can honestly say, I would have been very happy if Brokeback Mountain, having its premiere at the new Soho Place Theatre, was a bit longer.
Ennis Del Mar (Paul Hickey) is an old drunk, who sleeps in his clothes and pretty much reaches for the bottle as soon as he wakes up. He is an old man, nearing death, and the only thing he has in his life are his memories. He sits and thinks back to 1963, when a much younger Ennis (Lucas Hedges) took time off from being a ranch hand and teamed up with rodeo rider Jack (Mike Faist) to look after a flock of sheep on their pasture on Brokeback Mountain. The place may have looked picture postcard beautiful, but sheep herding was a boring job and initially, the taciturn Ennis didn’t bond that well with the full of beans Jack. But slowly, the two of them go on and become friends, and then lovers. But that was OK. Stories of cowboys seeking sexual solace with each other were as old as the mountain itself, but that was fine and once they finished the job, they went their separate ways. Ennis to marry Alma (Emily Fairn) and Jack back to the rodeo circuit. They built their lives and forgot that time spent together or did they? When four years later they meet again, Jack and Ennis realise that what happened on Brokeback doesn’t necessarily stay on Brokeback.
This was my first visit to the recently opened Soho Place Theatre and I was very impressed with the space. The show is played in the round and Tom Pye has created a wonderfully versatile set that brings to life both the sparse Wyoming mountainside complete with campfire, and the rustic home of Ennis and his wife. The set is very ingenious in design and really works well in setting the scene for Ennis, Jack, and Alma’s story.
Moving to writer Ashley Robinson’s story, and a couple of very important points for a potential audience member to know before they go. First Brokeback Mountain is not a musical, it is a play with music. Dan Gillespie Sells new songs are performed live by Eddi Reader and a band under MD Sean Green. The songs really add to the atmosphere of the story and that brings me to the second point. This is a story of love denied and so much of the story is told by actions, rather than words. But do not expect lots of nudity, heaving bodies and moans of groans of ecstasy – even one of the most famous scenes from the original movie happens out of sight. There is real subtlety in both the writing and Jonathan Butterell’s Direction. So the romance actually starts very gently with looks and very small, easy to miss, moments where the two boys touch, by accident and yet maybe not.
The story lives and dies by the actors playing Ennis (both young and old) and Jack, and Casting Director Shaheen Baig really earned their fee in finding Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist as Ennis and Jack respectively. Hedges is quiet and brooding. Ennis is not a man of words and violent actions, except when really pushed to the extreme, and much of the performance is based in posture and facial expression, something that Hedges absolutely excels in. At the other end of the scale is Jack, a naïve, enthusiastic rodeo rider who will be successful and, despite all the injuries he suffers, will always come out on top. Faist, making his West End debut, excels. And as we get nearer the end of the story, as his life doesn’t go the way he wanted, Faist finally accepts his character’s fate, and it shows. As individuals, we have two first-rate actors and together, they are an unstoppable force not only bringing Ennis and Jack to life but convincing the audience these two unlikely all-American men could have a love that lasts throughout the years. Paul Hickey as Old Ennis is on stage throughout, saying little but reliving life through his memories. Hickey is just wonderful. Saying little – even less than young Ennis – but totally immersed in his former life, reliving the highs and lows, the dreams, and regrets. A beautiful performance. Emily Fairn excels as Alma. A sweet young woman who knows too much but sacrifices herself for her family, Alma is a typical
American matriarch in the making, and Fairn (also making her West End debut) pulls it off beautifully.
What more to say about Brokeback Mountain? It is probably heresy, but I wasn’t that keen on the movie, but I absolutely loved this production. The story of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ is set between 1963 and 1983. Given the actions of certain lawmakers not just in the USA but over here, it is still as frighteningly relevant as it was when Annie Proulx first wrote the original short story in 1997. Whilst I would have liked the story to be expanded and give us more of Jack’s story, this production worked on every level for me. Brokeback Mountain has some marvellous moments of comedy, as the boys began their relationship, and an ending that was so emotional that I was crying, clapping, and like everyone else, leaping to my feet and cheering as the cast took their bows.
Review by Terry Eastham
Wyoming 1963: a wild landscape where people live in extreme rural poverty in tight, insular and conservative communities. When Ennis and Jack take jobs on the isolated Brokeback Mountain, all their certainties of life change forever as they flounder in unexpected emotional waters of increasing depth. Dan Gillespie Sells’ beautiful Country and Western songs weave heartbreakingly through this intense tale of an irresistible and hidden love spanning twenty years and its tragic consequences.
This is a play with original music by Dan Gillespie Sells, performed by the extraordinary singer, Eddi Reader, joined by her onstage Country and Western band: Sean Green (piano/Musical Director), Meelie Traill (upright bass), Greg Miller (harmonica) and BJ Cole (pedal steel guitar).
Running for a limited season until 12 August 2023.
12th August 2023
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