Review for The Barn Swallows; Wednesday 6th March 2019; Hope Street Theatre
‘There’s an empty coffin waiting to be filled… and a body snatcher on the loose.A stranger in town, a bounty hunter, a grieving widow and a dysfunctional Sheriff find their fates are intertwined in this Gothic Western tale of retribution and redemption. All seek to escape their past lives and the lawless town of Fort Griffin, but who will make it out alive.’
The synopsis for The Barn Swallows definitely gripped my imagination and captured my attention. But does this story of debauchery and death in The Wild West live up to expectations or is it a few bullets short of being a certified six-shooter?
The entrance to the theatre for The Barn Swallows is really quite interesting. There’s a full-sized coffin taking centre stage and a multi-level set that is seriously catching my attention. But, most importantly, a girl bound to a chair is staring into the abyss, forcing the audience to walk past her as they take their seats. It creates a foreboding atmosphere almost immediately and definitely helped the audience settle into the world.
The opening scene is clunky and nowhere near as sinister as it needed to be to create sympathy for the protagonist of the story (Reyna Gaia as Danni), which is absolutely vital to the plot considering this explains her warped view to the world and why she is so unnaturally aggressive to nearly everyone she encounters. There are violent moments in this scene but they are the typically nervous, half-hearted attempts at violence that we see so often on fringe stages. If an opening scene includes violence of this level, I expect it rehearsed to a tee and precise to the second so that every actor knows what is about to happen so that it maximises the impact of the moment. Sadly, it does neither of these things and I’m already finding myself disillusioned with the commitment to the story from the company.
This theme unfortunately continues as a narrator comes over the speakers to introduce the location and the time of the piece. However, the narrator stumbles over their lines, trips themselves up and fumbles the microphone. Any atmosphere that the opening scene managed to build up is now a hay bale rolling off into the distance as I’m starkly reminded that this is a performance. Now, either two things have happened here:
- The narration was live over the speakers and the person narrating dropped his microphone (or something to that effect). Or
- The narration was recorded and the team behind the scenes haven’t thought to re-record it for one reason or another.
No matter the reason behind this blunder, it smacks of a lack of foresight as a) if it is live, for the reason that these stumbles can happen, it shouldn’t be live. And b) If it’s recorded and nobody has thought to highlight this stumble as a reason to re-record it, it says more about the production than I ever could.
The actors recover from this blip pretty solidly and move the story along quite well, given what they have to work with. But the action never fully recovers from this point (or never even gets going, I’m still struggling to decide which point it is) and the problem that creates this sticking point most definitely isn’t on the stage.
Unfortunately, the writing of The Barn Swallows just isn’t refined enough to justify a £12 entrance fee for the remainder of the run. The script is awkward and far too text-heavy for a piece that has the majority of characters being partially or fully illiterate, the plot itself has multiple gaping holes in the storyline and there are at least three characters that I would argue don’t even need to be in it at all! Genuinely, in all the time that I have been involved in the Liverpool theatre scene, I have never caught myself scratching my head about something that has just happened on stage, more often than the amount I did last night. For example:
Sheriff Cornell (Pete Gibson – who for the record, had the best accent of the cast… Even if he did refer to the bounty on a characters head as pounds and not dollars) at one point in the first act, attempts to rape and assault Alice (Geraldine Moloney Judge) in a drunken tirade that sums up his pretty shitty character pretty bloody well, all for him and Alice to team up once Alice realises that Danni could be in trouble! Now, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve nearly been raped and I do not wish to speak ill or cause offence to anyone that have been in a ghastly situation like that. But, if that had happened to me, the LAST thing on my mind, would be to accompany said attempted rapist across the country in an attempt to find a mutual friend!
Furthermore, there is a character that we see in the first act for all of about two minutes. He is hidden in his long johns behind a table with his hands tied and we see no more of him until the second act, where it turns out that he was knocked out, tied up and had his clothes stolen by the person Danni and Robert Frost (Al Donohue) are chasing (who they never find I might add, as it turns out it is Robert Frost’s alter-ego, but that’s beside the point). This Muldoon character (Mark Porter) is discovered by Alice and Sheriff Cornell on their race to catch up with Danni – after Cornell has attempted to rape and threaten Alice that is – and he is hell bent on getting his clothes back. After being discovered and freed, he then joins the pair in tracking them down and invading on the final scene purely to be used as a bit of poorly timed comic relief by the writer, which positively pisses on the fire that is the tension of the final climax and the stand-off between the opposing groups of characters. This is utter naivety at best in the decision making process and I would have used this character in the first act in some of the bar scenes for the comic relief there. Instead, the writer and director have done the equivalent of shoe-horning a cockney complaining that it’s a bit nippy outside rowing past Jack and Rose as the Titanic is sinking.
Regrettably, this isn’t even the biggest plot-hole in this piece, as the actual storyline falls to utter pieces when the big twist is revealed. The outlaw with the bounty on his head that Danni had shot and put in a coffin actually turned out to be the person she was hunting for missing body with… but she just didn’t realise: Robert Frost, who created a fake alias to hunt down Sheriff Cowley, fell off his horse and bumped his head and forgot about his alter-ego until Danni realises the whole thing and conveniently reminds him. Again, I’ve never hunted down someone for a bounty… HOWEVER, it seems pretty obvious to me, that you have to be able to recognise said person, so that you can capture them or kill them! Honestly, I’ve been sat around since I saw this piece trying to think of a way in which the company and the writer didn’t see this glaring hole in the script and think to try and work around it before putting it on, because it makes absolutely no sense at all to me that nobody has realised this before last night.
Moving on from the plot holes, I’d like to raise an idea about something that could have been covered by both the writer and the director at this point. My English teacher and Drama teacher in secondary school (and further down the line my playwriting tutor) all used to berate anyone who told a story by telling the audience/reader what happened, as opposed to showing them. There is only a subtle difference when doing so, but the effect it has on the audience/reader is profound. The Barn Swallows does the former of these two techniques quite aggressively. Throughout nearly every key development I found that a cast member was telling me the development and holding the audiences hand throughout it, rather than giving enough of a suggestion towards the idea that the audience needed to grasp and trusting them to find their way themselves.
One final note on the writing, was that Danni’s upbringing was hardly even touched on. If you’re going to write about something so troubling, it needs to either warp the character to the point of no return, or have more of a defining role in the story and get more attention. Sadly, we see neither of this and it is simply a sideshow to the main storyline that we are following. A wise decision would have been to either enhance and develop this plotline, or cut it completely and simply mention that Danni was an orphan or something of the like.
Directing wise, the piece left me wanting a hell of a lot more from Meg Mcfarlane and John Smith (assistant director and also played Abe), as I feel that a lot of the input from said directors lacked much creative insight and sometimes came across as quite lazy. Each scene was bookended by a blackout and some music to create and transition into the next scene. Each of these transitions took around 30 – 40 seconds to complete and I counted at least 13 – 14 of these transitions. That means that there is literally SEVEN MINUTES of the show that is purely in blackout and transition. I’m sorry but in a professional theatre, there just isn’t an excuse for that. It completely loses the audience and more importantly, loses time that could be better spent on the plot than faffing around in relative darkness.
Moreover, the cleverly designed set and multiple different levels that I saw on the way in to the theatre didn’t even get used until the second act! Why, as a director, would you fill the entire rear half of your stage with an elaborate set, and then not use it at all in the entirety of the first (and longer) act? I don’t know whether it’s down to naivety or if it is just sheer lack of foresight and experience, but this, coupled up with the blunders listed above really don’t offer much hope in terms of what can be said about what I came to see last night.
Now, let’s look onto the positives shall we? Some of the acting in the piece was spot on at times. Al Donohue as Robert Frost brought a softly spoken guide to this piece in an often erratic world. The character itself is somewhat underdeveloped but I’m putting that down to the writing as opposed to the actor, who had some lovely subtleties in his movement and glances. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what else he can get his teeth into in the near future.
The set itself – albeit used too sparingly – is a wonderful piece of construction and I was thoroughly intrigued to see something so creative used in a story about the Wild West. It drew me to thinking about the sprawling plains that are littered with mesas and rolling hills. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of it.
Reyna Gaia deserves a nod as the protagonist in this piece. She had a difficult job in this piece navigating her way around a world that is just not built for a strong woman, never mind one with an upbringing as rough as hers. She brings a fire and volatility to the role that is hard to do. However, I would argue that she is too erratic in her movements at times and as such needs to slow her movements down to increase the sense of hostility in her tone and actions. Calculated and remorseless beats erratic constant aggression in building tension nearly every time.
Lastly, I would just like to make one final note. The Liverpool theatre scene celebrates new work and is often quite accepting and celebratory of people trying to create art and find entertainment to bring to others… It’s why we have more museums, galleries and theatres than any other city outside of London. It is a well-known fact that fringe theatre is struggling though. Audience members are getting lower and lower and our main aim right now should be to reach out and bring new faces to the theatre. To do this, we have to make new, innovative and affordable work that inspires and excites audiences. Create work that is going to grab people! Take them on a journey and make them leave saying
“Isn’t the theatre miles better than the Odeon?”
My worry with a show like this, is that throughout its rehearsal and advertising process, it attempts to bill itself as a professional outfit. And although it has the potential to peak the interest of those on the fence with its unique and interesting setting, it sells them a lie that has cost them £12 and any future trips to the theatre.
Lets get one thing straight. Labelling yourself as a professional piece of theatre doesn’t automatically make you better than an amateur performance. That is simply not true. It is not a bad thing to bill your show as an amateur piece of theatre. Be honest with your audience, and they will appreciate it for what it is; don’t try to hoodwink them by trying to bill yourself as a production that will rival the likes of The Magnificent Seven, your audience will see right through it and mistrust you as a result.
This show does have a life after this, as does any show and company willing to listen to advice and take it on board. And although I may come across as harsh at points, this isn’t to be nasty for the sake of it, I am genuinely trying to be constructive in what I am saying. Go away, tweak what you have, make some adjustments and then one day, The Barn Swallows will be of a professional standard.
Theatrevolt rating: 1/5 stars
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆