Reviewed – 19th June 2019
“a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances”
“Nobody minded bad behaviour as long as the public didn’t get to hear about it” Louis B. Mayer once told his young star, Mickey Rooney. Since the birth of Hollywood this has been a truism, sustaining the myth of the movie mogul as profane, vulgar, cruel, rapacious and philandering. The only real change these days is that the public does get to hear about it more and more. There is currently one name that everybody will no doubt associate with Barney Fein, the sleaze-ball producer masterfully played by John Malkovitch in David Mamet’s “Bitter Wheat”. But Mamet’s writing points the finger at a longer line of tycoons to produce an amalgam which adds more dimensions to the character. Malkovitch seizes this opportunity to add humour and human traces. But never sympathy.
Nobody escapes the machine-gun fire of Fein’s vitriol that turns to lasciviousness when he meets young actress, Yung Kim Li, to discuss her new film. He promises stardom, and we all know in return for what, especially as he has just had a high dose of a libido-enhancing drug that is just kicking in. Ioanna Kimbook catches on just as quickly with an impressive portrayal of the ingénue’s growing discomfort. It’s in this scene that Mamet’s wit really shines through, with faux-pas in abundance that soon take a darker turn when the inevitable career defining threat arrives.
Sadly, neither character comes out of this well. Nor does the second act which seems to be racing towards its rather farcical conclusion. Naturally, when the police are brought in Fein’s life falls apart. But the actress’ career is destroyed too, before it has started. Fein’s long-suffering secretary is also out of a job. Doon Mackichan downplays the contempt she feels for Fein perfectly – pitching it just right: high enough to be recognised but low enough to avoid the counterattack.
The subplots and sub characters that are tagged onto this central story seem unnecessary. An illegal immigrant who assassinates Fein’s terminally ill mother serves little purpose. The opening scene of the play, on the other hand, in which Fein refuses to pay a screenwriter his due fee is underexplored and unceremoniously discarded. It is in these moments that we are given a stronger insight into the psyche of the extraordinary character that is Barney Fein; and into the machinations of Hollywood. There is a quirkiness to the dialogue that is unmatched by the predictability of the sexual assault headlines.
Overall though, this is a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances. Mamet manages to display his usual, exhilarating and unique flair with words, tackling an uncomfortable subject. If anything, however, the humour makes it all a bit too comfortable and doesn’t necessarily advance the issues it is addressing. In this case truth is stranger than fiction.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Garrick Theatre until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue:
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
Reviewed – 10th November 2017
“this is a play that hinges on the language – a snappy mix of the toxic and intoxicating”
Written nearly thirty-five years ago, David Mamet’s play charts two days in the lives of four desperate real estate agents who unscrupulously engage in a number of unethical, illegal acts – lies, flattery, bribery, threats, intimidation and burglary – to coax unguarded clients into buying undesirable real estate. The world premiere at the National Theatre was acclaimed as a triumph of ensemble acting. In this revival at the Playhouse, directed by Sam Yates, the accolade still rings true with a first rate cast headed by Christian Slater. Although the word ‘headed’ is a slight misnomer – it is very much an ensemble piece.
Each character is as intrinsic as the next to the narrative flow, which makes this a difficult review to write, as fifteen minutes into the first act the show is brought to a halt when one of the actors collapses on stage. For forty minutes the audience wait while the safety curtain remains lowered. Eventually Slater arrives onstage to announce that the show will go on, with the understudy reading in for the actor. The cast continue with gusto, but one can’t help feeling that the momentum has ebbed ever so slightly. Even if one can’t see it in the performances, it is there in one’s perception of them.
But allowances aside, this is a play that hinges on the language – a snappy mix of the toxic and intoxicating. What is remarkable in the writing, and the performances, is the way it is clear that the bullishness, the pugilistic barrage of insults thrown at each other, the lies and the cajoling, is all a veneer. The outward depiction is that of masculinity to the extreme, but what we sense is the struggle, the vulnerability and the resignation to the fact that the game might be over.
The first half introduces the characters to us through three short scenes set in a plush Chinese restaurant (design by Chiara Stephenson). Kris Marshall is unrecognisable as he takes on the role of the dispassionate office manager, refusing to yield to the pleas of the older, yet junior, Shelly Levene – the past-its-sell-by-date old timer who yearns for the good ol’ days. Stanley Townsend evokes his exhausted hope and fragile nostalgia.
It is after the interval that the play comes into its own though. We have already been introduced to Slater’s snake-like Ricky Roma, but here he shifts up a gear, lifting the action with it. Probably the most assured yet two-dimensional character. You instantly know not to trust his smile, yet when he does launch into an explosion of insults and expletives you are still gleefully taken aback. It is invigorating to watch. Mamet’s text is savage, yes, but also laced with biting comedy.
It is a shame, then, not to witness the acclaimed Robert Glenister, to my mind one of our finest stage and screen actors. We wish him well and look forward to him stepping back onto the stage. As they say, the show goes on, and this one will.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
is at the Playhouse Theatre until 3rd February 2018