> Free whiskey and machismo parody

In the upstairs bar at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory theatre, free whiskeys are being given out to the crowd that’s gathered to see A Western, a performance by Bristol based production company Action Hero.

There’s no sign of any props and when the two sole performers Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse enter the bar equipped only with a cowboy hat, a harmonica and a bottle of discount brand ketchup, they announce that there’s going to be a lot of moving around.

What follows is a series of lively and endearingly clumsy renditions of all the scenes that are compulsory to any classic Western movie. There’s no real storyline to link the scenes together, but that doesn’t matter because no one ever really understands what’s going on in those movies anyway.

Instead we get the best bits, the show down at noon, the drunkard rolling down the steps outside the saloon and the ending where the hero dies a long and drawn out death. The ketchup, of course, functions as a particularly low budget alternative to fake blood.

A Western is very much an interactive show and this element of the performance genuinely elevates the atmosphere of the evening. Audience members and the theatre’s staff are pulled in spontaneously to become menacing card players, cold blooded gunmen, and thick skinned saloon bartenders.

Almost everyone was really receptive to this, although a small handful of the theatregoers, who were probably expecting an evening of chin-stroking and deep contemplative thinking, were reluctant to get involved with the playful shenanigans. One individual, for example, spent the entire duration of the performance seated, reading the theatre brochure and occasionally rolling his eyes in response to the jokes.

The performance parodies the overblown machismo and moronic patriotism of American Western movies in a witty and light-hearted way. It makes fun of the idea that we’re supposed to think that there’s something so momentously cool about pretty absurd clichés – the scene where the cowboy struts into a saloon, everyone stops talking… he orders a whiskey, for example.

Traditional Westerns usually project a very conservative idea about American morality, George W. Bush didn’t win the hearts of so many Americans by being a good speaker, but it probably helped that he talked like a cowboy from some B-movie.

A Western mocks the generic individual-against-the world mentality and dodgy stereotyping of Western films, like when the audience are instructed to laugh like bad guys if they’re “anything other than white, American and male”.

I’ve seen interactive stuff at the theatre before, but nothing quite as dauntless as this. With any kind of performance it’s always more exiting when the performers take risks and countless things could have potentially gone wrong here.

Although the dialogue was minimal and the movements were sketchy, in hindsight it’s clear that A Western is tightly written and carefully considered. I’ll keep an eye out to see what Action Hero are up to next.

By David Reed