Tombstone Tales and Boothill Ballads @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Alan DeVally, Chris Doyle, Tom Espiner, Erica Guyatt, Tom McHugh, Victoria Moseley, Ian Summers, Funke Adelke, Yoko Brewer, Dawn Davies, James Grant

directed by
Carl Heap
While many theatres ready themselves for Christmas by rolling out the snow machine, the Arcola, always to be relied on to serve up something a bit different, has brought a slice of the Wild West to the East End.

The main studio space has been decked out as a saloon bar in Tombstone, Arizona, the site of the gunfight at (or near, as the programme points out) the OK Corral.

But Carl Heap, writer and director of this quirky production isn’t interested in the town’s more notorious residents.

While lawman Wyatt Earp does feature in the show, Heap’s fascination lies elsewhere: with the lives – or rather the deaths – of the less well known inhabitants of the Boothill Cemetery.
Tombstone Tales is something of an oddball concoction, stringing together a series of short accounts of gunfights and jealous spats and stagecoach ambushes, none of which end well. One by one a series of unfortunates affix their name to the wooden cross at the side of the stage and make their sombre exits. There are deaths by shooting, hanging and stabbing; the town’s doctor and undertaker are never short of business. To die from natural causes, it seems, was a rarity.

While Heap has embroidered these stories a little, they have all been drawn from real events and he sticks pretty solidly to what is known. There’s Lester More whose grave marker famously reads: “Shot four times by a 44. No Les. No More”; Margarita, the Mexican dance hall girl, killed by a love rival and the poor sap who was “hanged by mistake.”

By focusing wholly on the manner of demise, Heap allows little room for character development but the pace and structure of the production makes up for this omission. It’s a lively piece of theatre with a rough, unpolished charm. The stories are frequently told musically, accompanied by the twang of guitar and the tinkle of piano. There is some very rudimentary shadow puppetry and, at one point, a rather gruesome Riverdance-of-death. There’s also a dash of audience participation and a bit of a sing-along.

The cast (all clad in era-appropriate long-johns, not the most fetching of undergarments) perform with real energy, nimbly hopping between their various roles including the occasional horse and picking up instruments when required. Though the pace does flag towards the end, and the production would probably benefit from losing at least one of its brief episodes, the enthusiasm of the performances holds up throughout. Chris Doyle stands out from a strong ensemble as the errouneously hanged George Johnson.

While it’s true this show makes entertainment out of violent death, it doesn’t do so in a flippant manner, indeed it acknowledges the harsh nature of life in the West and paints a fairly clear picture of how grim and messy existence was for people in a place like Tombstone.

It’s difficult to know quite who this piece is designed to appeal to; it’s a bit too dark for young audiences (the Arcola states that it’s suitable for the over 14s and I would go along with that, it’s no murkier than a Roald Dahl) and the particaptory elements may make some of the older ones flinch. But if you give in to it, if you go with the bullet-strewn flow, it’s undeniably entertaining stuff.

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