Russell Bolam directs a new production of David Mamet’s rarely performed two-hander first produced in 1977 and not seen in London for twenty-five years.
The set (Anthony Lamble) is a beautifully carpentered wooden façade of a lakeside summer house, complete with decking out front, upon which most of the action takes place. If anything, the house looks too good for its supposed age as it has been Nick’s summer place all his lifetime. His rowing boat, presumably of similar vintage, is discovered by Ruth to have half rotted away.
Our first view of the couple shows Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) to be madly in love with Nick (Sam Frenchum), prattling away to him about not very much of consequence; conversation which is received with monosyllabic and noncommittal answers. Nick stares with unblinking eyes and a featureless expression. We ascertain from the outset that this man is not quite all right, and Frenchum acts the part to a tee. Over three parts of the day – dusk/night/morning – the couple tell each other part-stories, never quite ending their tales. Ruth talks of her grandmother, Nick of his father. The stories involve bears, birds, fish, and even Martians; stories that are started, and left unfinished.
Subtle subdued lighting (Bethany Gupwell) changes over the course of the night and into the next morning including a well-designed lightning storm. Some superfluous flickering of a porch lamp between the scenes alongside ominous eerie sounds (Ali Taie) hint at the supernatural or, perhaps, a representation of Nick’s bad dreams.
Just as seen in Shakespeare, life in The Woods is different from that of The City but there is little evidence that Nick is liberated by the country idyll. It appears the more Ruth professes her love for him, the more clammed up Nick becomes until things turn ugly. Special mention here for Fight/Intimacy Co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda whose work with the two actors ensures the close scenes between the couple are totally credible and produces a most convincing on-stage scuffle that is indeed uncomfortable viewing.
The morning after the night before produces the finest moments of the play as Ruth finds some stoicism in her dealings with Nick and this audience finds some humour here that resonated. Whilst we can say that Mamet does not go far enough in exploring the possibilities between the couple – perhaps what we see and hear today was shocking enough forty-five years ago – this is a beautifully presented production of a play that gives little for the actors to work with. But Sam Frenchum and Francesca Carpanini work well together with what they have and the performance of Carpanini, in particular, is captivating.
“a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain”
It is 1984 in London, and while Thatcher and Scargill are at loggerheads over the miner’s strike elsewhere, the city is setting the scene for its own battles in a time of cultural upheaval. There was a revolutionary spirit, partly fuelled by the property boom, that eventually found itself in the hands of the satirists. While Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech echoed from Wall Street, our home grown “Loadsamoney” became a national catchphrase. But among the cacophony, a quieter voice, in the shape of the late writer Stephen Jeffreys, captured the mood with far more humanity and subtlety. “Valued Friends” was the play that launched Jeffreys’ career and won him the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for most Promising Playwright.
In its first major revival in thirty years, the comedy and pathos still resonate in today’s turbulent economic and political climate. Yet the beauty of Jeffreys’ writing lies in his refusal to allow the social issues to take centre stage. They are merely the backdrop to the razor-sharp depiction of the characters, which makes his writing both era specific and timeless.
In a basement flat in Earls Court, four friends in their mid-thirties are scrabbling to keep their heads above water. They are thrown unexpectedly into a battle of nerves when a young, confident property developer offers them a substantial fee to vacate their home. Spurred on by the revolutions of their time, they quickly realise that they hold all the cards in this real-life game of Monopoly and, over the course of three years, they manipulate the burgeoning property market. But much more is at stake than a few quid, and that is what the audience cares about.
“How much do you care?” asks quirky, stand-up comic Sherry in the opening line. It is the beginning of a hilarious monologue about her journey home on the Underground, one of many delivered by Natalie Casey in a spellbinding performance that is a master class in comic timing. Meanwhile Michael Marcus’ Howard, an academic writing about the corruption of capitalism, is succumbing to the attraction of the pound signs waved in front of him. Marion and Paul make up the close-knit foursome destined to be torn apart. “You used to get some really good conversation in this flat. Burning issues and moral dilemmas and things. Now all everyone talks about is money”. Sam Frenchum, as Paul, brilliantly sheds his comic mantle as the keen music journalist to become the earnest home improvement enthusiast, while Catrin Stewart’s straight-talking, pragmatic Marion manages to pull our heartstrings as she discovers that the more she gains, the more she has to lose – on a purely personal level. Ralph Davis’ meticulously pitched estate agent, Scott, is a brilliant work of satire. Far from being a Mephistophelian figure he merely dangles the carrot. But show stealer is Nicholas Tennant as Stewart, who only appears in the second act as the hilarious, surreally philosophical builder.
Michael Fentiman’s sharp direction brings out the best of the actors on Michael Taylor’s simple yet ingenious set, that transforms in time-lapse motion from a scruffy basement flat to a swish, desirable property. This is a very human story that pulls off the almost impossible feat of making you feel nostalgic for Thatcher’s Britain. Richard Hammarton’s eighties soundtrack highlights the best of the decade, just as these characters shed a warm light on the heart of the matter. It’s a skilfully written and performed piece of modern satire: you shouldn’t like these people but, in answer to the opening question of the play, you care an awful lot.