By Jay Menard
Despite the legendary shooting acumen of its title character, Mr. Richardson was Jesse James, currently playing at The Palace Theatre as part of the London Fringe Festival, either misses the mark or, more appropriately, may not be sure what target it’s trying to hit.
The play bills itself as an Ontario South Western. But it reminded me more of my youth growing up in Montreal. Frontier Town, located in upstate New York, was a destination of choice for families looking for a vacation spot during the late 70s and early 80s. It was a place where the bad guys wore black hats, the kids would dress up as cowboys, and with cap guns in hand, we’d “shoot” the train robber, get our faces printed on the local newspaper, and walk away heroes.
That’s what James’ dialogue immediately took me back to. The script was filled with stilted content and corny jokes that would have sounded right at home coming out of the mouth of those paid-by-the-hour theme park employees. It wavered between being a family-friendly type of show that would have been at home on network television in the 50s and something you’d see at a modern pioneer village as part of an amateur re-enactment.
However, there were highlights. Chris McAuley was solid as Jesse James, playing two separate styles – from the manic, uncertain youth to the older, more wisened version in Ontario. Matthew Stewart’s Bossy was period-perfect and engaging to watch, and Nathaniel Keith, playing Silas, seemed the most at home with the style of dialogue presented. And the secondary characters were oddly one-note and lacked any depth or passion.
There were odd moments of blocking, starting from a disjointed opening murder scene to awkward transitions throughout. The staging was adequate, with a storybook-style drop and various fences, benches, and props. Oddly enough, Rob Faust, in the role of Frank James, was at times human furniture as he never left the stage and seemed distractingly out of place during the scenes in which he wasn’t featured.
James has elements of a historical drama. It also has elements of a made-for-kids “educational” program. But it embraces neither and represents more as a series of vignettes, illustrating a story but never getting deeper than a surface recitation.