by David Mamet
Directed by Daniel Evans
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Thursday 23rd April 2015, evening
Damian Lewis as Teach
John Goodman as Don
Tom Sturridge as Bob
I should save my paragraph on basic American drama and cut and paste it. You take a small number of brilliant and well-known actors. Three? You have one set. It’s elaborate and detailed and realistic, You have two acts. They’re quite short … 50 minutes? The lighting plot is ‘switch on at the start, switch off at the end.’ You won’t have a choreographer because there’s no dance. You won’t need music, live or recorded, nor sound effects. There are no costume changes. You have a great deal of talking.You have a great deal of emoting. There are a few laughs, but not many. It’s Broadway economics, and transferred to London, it cost us three times as much for a seat as the Merchant of Venice at the Almeida which had all of the missing ingredients, and twice as much as The Globe or the National Theatre. These modern American classics lack theatricality and theatrical magic almost entirely.
You can see the appeal to star movie actors. The London run is for personal satisfaction. Film acting is short bursts of intense effort, all done out of sequence. The classic American play wastes no time for actors waiting around listening to minor characters, no sitting in the dressing room for 30 minutes, because you’re on stage nearly all the time, and the actor gets to explore a character in depth in the company of fellow luminaries.
What you do get is three actors at the top of their profession, and first rate performances. John Goodman and Damian Lewis have been off the stage for around the same number of years. In fact we saw Damian Lewis’s last stage performance as Alceste in a modernized version of The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley. He’s still just as good, but that modern translation was a better play. Most recently he was Henry VIII in Wolf Hall on TV, and here with sideburns and 1970s moustache he is in total contrast. He plays Teach, the loser-gangster character.
John Goodman is one we have admired for so long it’s hard to believe he’s there running that huge range of facial expressions four rows in front of us. I was mildly shocked that Roseanne isn’t listed in his TV appearances, nor The Flintstones under film. There is nothing to be ashamed of about great sitcom. Goodman plays Don, the junk shop owner. Apparently his last stage appearance was as Pozo in Waiting for Godot. This is releavant.
The one we knew least is Tom Sturridge as Bob, though Far From the Madding Crowd will be opening during the run of the play. We saw him in Punk Rock,(LINKED) again five or six years ago. He plays Bob, the text describes him later as a junkie, but I thought him basically simple. In the country sense. He looks the part with a shaven head, and is equal to his two longer established fellow star actors. The cover photo of the programme has all the actors looking different to the play in hairstyles and facial hair. Good, because Tom Sturridge’s shaven head was a surprise, and Damian Lewis’s 70s hair and moustache got a laugh on entry.
The set is Don’s extremely crowded junk shop, even the roof has hanging bits of bicycles filling the whole. Attention to detail is meticulous. That’s American washing up liquid (Ivory) and an American milk carton, and the paper stuck on the walls is the Chicago Tribune. All the realia is American. It’s 1975, and I can’t vouch for the rows of dusty secondhand cassettes but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were too. The lighting director, bereft of an active role has neon signs, light outside, odd spotlights and striplights. The only lighting board action is late on when the lights of a police cruiser sweep by the window and that’s blink and you miss it. As with several others of these plays there’s a flurry of excitement right near the end when Teach (Lewis) loses his temper and smashes up the shop with some falling around.
The story centres around a coin, an American buffalo head nickel. It’s valuable, a coin collector bought it from Don for $90. Don thought it was worth two bits, but cunningly waited to find out what the guy is willing to pay. He finds out it’s worth five times that $90 and is deeply resentful- bad secondhand store attitude that. Don has told us that value is arbitrary, when they look at some World Fair souvenir kitsch. Those who succeed in used books or vinyl at least, are those who know what they paid, sell for a lot more and never agonize about “book value” nor what someone with specialist knowledge might sell on for. Don does agonize though, so plans to burgle the collector and get it (and other coins too). Bob is going to help, but is an incompetent- buying a coffee is a task above him. Teach arrives effing and blinding, and persuades Don to dump Bobby and instead go in with him on the burglary. Don insists on involving Fletcher, a cardsharp who we never meet.
In Act Two, Bobby brings Don a buffalo head nickel. Teach doesn’t want Bobby involved and they send him off and wait for Fletcher. There is much funny business with phones (no spoilers), but they reveal that neither Don nor Teach is that bright either. Bobby returns to say Fletcher is in hospital. They don’t believe him, Teach freaks out and attacks and injures Bob. Then the phone rings. Bob was telling the truth. Not only that but he bought the nickel to try and please Don. Ending with male hugs. Goodman and Sturridge’s final hug is genuinely moving, and a brilliant performance from both.
While you won’t see a better three guy interaction this year, and the three generations add interest, we both felt the intrinsic play wasn’t particularly good. OK, it’s an American classic. It’s by David Mamet. It’s highly regarded, particularly by this cast, judging from interviews. But … ouch … I’m going to say it, Americans write musicals and films best. The British write stage drama best. My long held opinion. This lacks much of what we want to see in the theatre … intrinsically, as a story, as an interaction. The problem for me is the genre, but also the play. It’s two odd somewhat enigmatic characters Waiting for Fletcher. And there’s a boy. But just as Waiting for Godot reveals so much on a bare stage, this reveals so much less on such a crowded stage. Afterwards, both of us said, ‘not as good as Johnny Speight.’ That means, Steptoe and Son. Philosophizing junk dealers. Don as Albert, Harold split between Teach and Bob.
It’s early Mamet. I’d say it’s a mash-up of The Caretaker, Steptoe and Son and Waiting for Godot. Three impeccable sources. All better than this play.
One great thing is that at last we had a genuine American in Goodman, and Lewis after Band of Brothers and Homeland does perfect American – he says he stays in American accent all the time on set for these. Sturridge benefits from working with them. Seamless too.
WEST END THEATRE NOTE
We were in the fourth row of the stalls. In the interval, the two people next to us left, so did two behind and two further along the row. Six in a small area. This keeps happening in London. Are there people with that much money that they go in, browse act one and disappear? Is it the high count of explicit language? Were they bored? Did they get it on a corporate package deal? I don’t know, but six in four rows is a lot, and we didn’t look behind.