Code of the West

Rating ****
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes

Tabard Theatre – 17th October 2013

Mistaken identity, embezzlement, sexism.
All of these things are rife in nineteenth century San Francisco where a self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States rules and the Code of the West dominates the citizens’ actions.

In desperate need of an heir to continue his dynasty Joshua A. Norton the First (David Jansen) has advertised for a wife in the very same paper that first wrote of his self-declaration. So when a Russian countess arrives from England with her secretary to offer him her hand, it looks as though his succession will be guaranteed. However, not all is as it seems. Who will the Code of the West rule in favour of?

With a cast of just five actors, the play opens with journalist Frank Tremont (Stephen Cavanagh) chewing a cigar and playing cards. When he is interrupted by T. Preston Booth (William Findley), we start to understand what the Code of the West is: rules and regulations for how to act in duels, deals and day-to-day life.

The Code is present throughout the play, but the main story tells of the various deceptions taking place. The Countess (Lucinda Forth) has a dubious Russian accent, so we presume she is English like her secretary (Zoë Teverson), yet they turn out to be American cousins (Violet and Claire) trying to break a clause in Violet’s father’s will so she can inherit. Meanwhile Booth is persuaded to break into the bank to swap his gold bullion for coins.

There are a few stumbled lines, and several of the asides (laying out the Code of the West) are perhaps spoken a bit too quickly, but all five actors are strong and the accents are credible.

David Jansen is outstanding, particularly his natural flow and poise. When he is bemused and mumbling, there is no sign of performing and his portrayal of the Emperor is touching and pitiable. Whether deliberate or not, the stain on his jacket really added to our overall impression of his character – a sweet old man who truly believes in his right to rule the kingdom.

The scene between T. Preston and Violet is very well-written and acted. Violet has been offering financial advice for years, but as the Countess she pretends to understand nothing, cleverly mistaking everything he says to her, with amusing consequences. Finally she explains how he can solve his problem… sneaking into the bank from an alleyway.

Scenery is simple but clever, with two main sets that fold out from each other and the music before and after the scenes is very tongue-in-cheek, with songs about San Francisco that makes for a relaxed audience.

Writer Mark Giesser has created a gentle comedy that works well in the space at The Tabard, as it is an intimate production in both story and performance. Based loosely on a true story, the play also touches on the role of women and (ironically) the power of the press.

Despite a few barely noticeable glitches, which the actors ignore, the play is performed well, makes the audience laugh and is thoroughly enjoyable.