There is a reason why Annie Proulx’s short story has heralded critical acclaim both in text and on screen. A tragic tale draped in the traditional American dream but at the time of publication it pushed the boundaries of representation, breaking new ground and allowing so many people to feel seen. This new version, adapted for stage by Ashley Robinson perfectly preserves the original story and flourishes in the intimate setting. A cohesive design and spectacular performances ensure this production can hold its own amongst the classics - a definitive success. 

Two ranch hands spend the summer protecting a sheep heard when they strike up an unlikely and intense romance on the side of a mountain before reality arrives and they return to their lives,  wives and children-to-be. Years pass and the Jack and Ennis cross paths again and what follows is twenty years of ‘fishing trips’ where the pair enjoy solace and escape the troubles of their lives away from one another. The story told as if from memory as an older Ennis looks on to the proceedings is full of peace and heartbreak, remembering the fire, songs and what could have been. 

The plot simultaneously moves leisurely and rapidly. The scenes play out with a natural, calm pace that gifts the characters breath and purpose, but the time jumps in between are initially a  little jarring as in one moment the men are barely talking and in the next, there is some serious tent wrestling occurring. Once accustomed to the pace the piece settles nicely and the focus lands on the remarkable performances of Mike Faist (Jack) and Lucas Hedges (Ennis). 

Faist’s Jack is the more extroverted of the two, initially leading the conversation and whining about the work at hand. He is delightfully expressive and easy to read, pushing for the pair to build a life together and ignore the external consequences that might accompany that choice.  Faist is a delight to watch on stage, flexing his range as the emotional stakes increase but equally effective in silence when speaking unspoken words. Hedges matches Faist’s performance beautifully, his more reserved character works as a nice distinction between them. He also blossoms in the scenes with his wife, portrayed by the talented Emily Fairn, as he struggles with his double life. Once boundaries have been crossed, he brings much of the intensity to the men’s relationship, the act of hiding his love forcing it to burst out when they are together. The two actors are exquisitely cast and with talent such as these involved it surely has a life beyond its limited West End run. 

Having never seen the acclaimed film myself it is impossible to compare how this sits alongside  Ang Lee’s movie but director Jonathan Butterell retains a cinematic essence to the piece, the steady pace and tactile design effortlessly transports us to the rural outback of America. During the winter scenes David Finn’s lighting catches the gentle glow of the falling snow beautifully,  creating an ethereal picture, whilst Christopher Shutt’s sound expands on the confines of the space as we hear hooves, bird calls and trains passing in the distance. Tom Pye’s set is neatly versatile and textured, with rising elements and a real campfire, a stunning contrast to the shiny new space at @sohoplace. 

This production is billed as a play with songs, and the music from Dan Gillespie Sells provides an enchanting soundscape representing the passage of time, often complete with the melancholic cry of a harmonica. The live band capture the bittersweet emotion and setting of the play neatly and are a fantastic addition to the piece, watching on from afar like us the audience. This truly is a  well-crafted evening of theatre, that concisely tells a tender story of love and loss that will resonate with so many. It does not overcomplicate the proceedings, opting to let the piece exist delicately in the moment. With masterful performances and impeccable design, this is a gentle triumph that thrives in the intimacy of its surroundings - one not to miss.

It runs until 12 August.


Review: Henry Longstaff               Photo: Manuel Harlan