Paint Your Wagon review – nuggets of charm in sexist Gold Rush musical

Liverpool Everyman
This smart version of the rarely performed Lerner and Loewe musical subverts the dodgy gender politics

Lerner and Loewe’s rarely performed Paint Your Wagon is synonymous with Gold Rush-era California, conjuring images of miners and gold-panning. But at the start of Gemma Bodinetz’s new production – the first in the Everyman company’s 2018 season – the lights come up on flowers, torn out of the fertile earth by chancers hoping to make a killing.

One of these restless gold-hunters is Ben Rumson (Patrick Brennan), who strikes a vein in the musical’s first scene. Soon, the prospecting town named after him is a stew of dust, greed and testosterone. It’s 400 men to one woman – Rumson’s young daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hughes), blissfully oblivious to the ogles and leers – and something’s got to give.

Paint Your Wagon
Harmful acquisitiveness … Keddy Sutton, Emma Bispham and Richard Bremmer in Paint Your Wagon. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

Paint Your Wagon is of its time, doubly stained by the sexism of both its 1850s setting and the 1950s when it was written. This is a world in which women are property, to be sold off at auctions or in card games. Bodinetz needles at the dodgy gender politics, using cross-casting – a necessity if the company of 14 are to fill all the roles – to subvert traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity. There’s also an implicit critique of the harmful acquisitiveness of men like Rumson, who rip up the earth in search of treasure.

The piece is performed by a rep company of all-rounders, not a cast of seasoned musical theatre performers, and it occasionally shows. But Bodinetz’s production plays on its rough-hewn charm, which matches the rustic simplicity of the set. Likewise, Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography works cleverly with the ordinariness of these bodies, never attempting to stage high-kicking Broadway set pieces. In one startling sequence, simple gestures of reaching and clutching brilliantly capture the itch of loneliness on the prairie.

Despite the 1969 film version starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, Paint Your Wagon has become as neglected as post-boom Rumson. It’s an image of a lost world, with many features – misogyny, racism, intolerance – that are best left in the wilderness. This revival doesn’t quite reclaim the show, but it’s a smart and enjoyable twist on it nonetheless.


Catherine Love

The GuardianTramp

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