Sunday afternoon is the perfect time for a Western. You know, not one with a John Wayne or a Gary Cooper level of star, but maybe with a couple of handsome no-names on an adventure in the Wild West.
Somewhere in Texas, Sadie (Maddy Strauss) a rancher’s daughter teams up with bounty hunter John (George Fletcher) and ranch hand Isaac (Benjamin Victor) to track down a killer and recover her father’s stolen spurs. Sure, this may sound like a generic Western, but Spur is intent on something else entirely. Writer Matt Neubauer and director James Nash use this generic concept for an ambitious and ethereal trip through disparate stories of grief, love, and longing.
Strauss drops the convincing Texan accent for her own English accent as we discover the Western is just a backdrop. Watching such movies was a ritual with her father and suffice it to say he did not live up to the example set by the heroes of the Wild West. Sadie has inherited a box of his tapes and DVDs and fires up the projector now and again to revisit the West and the memories of her father. It is these movies that we see projected on the walls. The use of lighting designed by Ben Kulvichit and video from Alberto Lais is spectacular. The video becomes a part of the story, a large projector shining onto the walls of the Cavern space, and the cast blocking or moving in this light. The silhouette with a cowboy hat overcomes cliché and looks fantastic. Even the rays of light from the projector play a part, shining onto and around the characters.
Outside of the Western, the characters never interact; their stories are in separate times and places which never merge. Sadie reckons with her relationship with her father. John tells of longing, a lost romance developed during a cyber-heist of an online game. Coming alive and shifting totally from the taciturn gunslinger, Fletcher explodes around the Cavern, talking intently to the audience, telling of his love and his loss, and making it easy for us to see his unrequited passion. Victor tells a moving and comedic story of love, of finally realising that he was once in love, confessing this a desert which has overtaken Swindon in the future. Each of the cast skilfully moves from Western shoot-outs to monologues about their individual characters’ yearnings. Each brings the audience with them on their own journey, deep into their own aches and loss.
The single link in each story is the word spur: the spurs of a cowboy, the name of the game is ‘Spur,’ and it is the spur of a rock in the final scenes in the desert. It is the themes of love, longing, and grief that binds the three stories together, much like it binds the heroes together in the Western.
Spur is challenging and needs its audience to lean into it a little and to go with its twists and turns. While ambitious, it also both meanders and rushes. The transitions could do with a moment to breathe, a moment for a beat to land. Even within this short run time, some of the meanders in the stories could be better served, moderately cut down and the time used for occasional pauses. The Cavern, well described in its name, works against Spur a little bit. I found I had to check dialogue via the captions (available at every show) as words were sometimes lost or muffled in the large space. A couple of minor tweaks will see Spur riding off into the sunset in even more style, bad guys dispatched, rewards collected and a job well done.
Written by: Matt Neibauer
Directed by: James Nash
Sound Design and Composition by: Nat Norland
Lighting Design by: Ben Kulvichit
Video by: Alberto Lais
Dramaturgy by: Hazel Low
Spur plays at VAULT Festival until 9 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.