Paint Your Wagon

My Dad, a 50-year-old electrical engineer from Liverpool, has an uncultured view of art, film, theatre, and consumable media in general. But that doesn’t stop him from having a list of all-time favourite musicals. Granted, it’s not a fully thought out or reliable list, but it’s a list nonetheless, that consists of Fiddler On The Roof, and Paint Your Wagon. I think he loves them both because they make musicals masculine and real, approachable for men of a certain age to enjoy without feeling the prejudices of their 1940’s birthed parents, for them having enjoyed something that isn’t working hard or providing for their unplanned and hastily conceived families.

My Dad so enjoys Paint Your Wagon, that as a birthday present from my Mum, he had bought himself two tickets to come and enjoy Liverpool Everyman’s production of it. I’m assuming she’ll refund him the cash when he submits his March expenses… As the thoughtful reviewer that I am, I chose to come and view it first, and ruin it for him. Happy birthday, Pop.

I can admit that I approached this viewing not really understanding what I was about to experience. My understanding of the content was vague, but I knew briefly of the plot, and that the film had Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in. Cool, that’s fine for me. So I watched the trailer for the film. Okay cool. A little camp, but still looks enjoyable. I feel like the Everyman production magnified the intensity of campitude*, to the extent that I was not expecting – but to an extent that I thoroughly enjoyed, after some initial stumbles. (It may seem like I didn’t enjoy it, but it’ll come full circle at the end. You’ll see).

*it could be a word. Don’t word shame me.

I’m not a musical guy. I like hard-hitting drama, sharp comedy, heart-wrenching romance – but I really feel like condensing these into a musical performance is something that requires skill, precision, and an overwhelming faith that the source material is strong enough… But I really do have to question the source material at this point. I feel like as a director, it’s exclusively your job to interpret your script and make solid judgement calls on what you include, but more importantly what you don’t include, and know what it means to present a balanced piece.

I almost wish director, Gemma Bodinetz was more ruthless in her decisions. I felt like the best, most engaging and inclusive moments, where when nobody was singing. Trying to express every instance of plot through song is really difficult, and I felt lost at points because I just couldn’t understand what was being said. I would have appreciated more refinement in what was and was not sung – because it made a good portion of the first act almost unwatchable for me.

But that loss of narrative allowed me to focus on what I could enjoy, and what was really working for me. The musical composition by George Francis, worked harmoniously and seamlessly with choreographer, Tom Jackson Greave’s, work – it really was a treat for the senses. The whole show felt like a sexually charged ballet, working on so many levels in a truly captivating yet fairly brutal vision, that was lifted by genuinely complementing lighting. Aurally and visually, I can’t fault it. Everything just worked.

Just like anything you see though, you need substance. You need more than a concert – you need truth, you need emotional attachment, and you need to be involved. I felt at a loss for all of those things.

I feel that the accent replication distanced us from what the play was about, and I just wish that Keddy Sutton didn’t interpret the old-west accent to be a collection of R’s where they don’t belong, because there is more cadence to it than ‘Wagorn’, ‘Thaughrts’, ‘Gorld’, ‘Daurghter’, ‘Clernt Eaerstwood’. I also sometimes forgot where Julio Valveras (played by Marc Elliot) was supposed to be from, to the point where I was questioning whether the Russians had begun settling in America during the gold rush…

I also wish, as I do with so many theatrical pieces, that it wouldn’t try to be everything. The romance felt unromantic, the comedy never landed the way I imagine it was intended, and the drama wasn’t dramatic. There seemed to be no real stakes for any of the characters… but maybe that’s why I enjoyed it. Musicals don’t need to be hard hitting. They don’t need to have a social message subliminally constructed within it. I feel like once I had allowed myself to accept that during the interval, it made the second act considerably more enjoyable.

It began to feel sleazy, alive, honest – but still a little too PG for me. It’s a bunch of raunchy men haggling over women, and I felt like everything was being held back on. I’m a person of a certain generation that notoriously has a short attention span – if you don’t hook me, I’ll be tweeting a hashtag to all my followers on Snapchat out of sheer boredom and a deeper internal anxiety that I’m just not ready to talk about yet.

Paint Your Wagon wasn’t the gun slinging, blood boiling, tobacco spitting, cattle herding, poker playing, brothel running, ethnicity misunderstanding, Texas conquering, army deserting, stereotype playing, Western that I wanted – but it was the Western that I deserved, and the Western that I got – so give it a chance Dad. I hope it remains on your top two list of things you enjoy.

Paint Your Wagon is running on the Liverpool Everyman until the 14th of July. Buy your tickets here.

Liam Powell

Liam is a filmmaker from Liverpool making short form and commercial content around the UK. He’s interested in music, comedy and, film. He considers himself an all-rounder, but very rarely upholds that claim in the real life.