Christian Slater has returned to the West End in the stage adaptation of George Huang’s 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which received its world premiere on Tuesday (16 October 2007, previews from 5 October) at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, where it has a limited 15-week season (See News, 8 Aug 2007).
Slater plays Buddy Ackerman, the part created by Kevin Spacey on screen. Buddy is one of the most powerful men in the cut-throat world of Hollywood, the mastermind of a top studio’s high-grossing, ultra violent horror slate – and he’s the boss from hell. Guy, his eager and idealistic new assistant and would-be screenwriter, soon finds himself serving as Buddy’s personal slave. Hoping to be given his big break, Guy endures Buddy’s relentless abuse until he reaches breaking point, leading to a torturous showdown between mentor, protégé and lover, with devastating consequences.
Slater made his West End debut playing rebel Randle P McMurphy, immortalised on screen by Jack Nicholson, in September 2004 in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which won him Best Actor prize in the 2005 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards. He reprised his performance in a brief West End return season last year (See News, 15 Feb 2006).
Slater is joined in Swimming with Sharks by Matt Smith as Guy and Helen Baxendale as Dawn Lockard, a fellow film producer and romantic interest. The piece is adapted by Michael Lesslie, directed by Wilson Milam and designed by Dick Bird. It’s presented by Nick Frankfort and Tobias Round (formerly executive producer and general manager, respectively, of the Donmar Warehouse) for CMP, which commissioned the play, and Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer for Nimax Theatres Ltd.
First night critics were asked by the show’s publicists not to watch the film original beforehand or reveal the key plot twists in their reviews. Those who had seen the film, by accident or design, found the stage version wanting by comparison, both in terms of the structure and the central performances. The exercise also reignited the debate about whether screen-to-stage crossovers make for legitimate or dramatically engaging theatre, with all agreeing that this one at least “offers scant justification” for the effort.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “It’s okay but it’s not great. And in the end it’s really not a patch on the film … Lesslie’s script, apart from a few gratuitous references to people like Paris Hilton, is faithful to the original except in one crucial respect: it tells the story chronologically whereas George Huang’s film is brilliantly structured as both re-cap and catch-up … Those later scenes, where Spacey turns the tables on Guy while enduring torture by paper cuts on his face and tongue, are highly dramatic, and surprisingly skated over in the stage version, which just flattens out into far too rapid grand guignol. Director Wilson Milam indulges his taste for gothic without exploiting the psychological mind games. The production looks good with a sleek design of Hollywood offices and peripheral furniture by Dick Bird, but never really conveys the gleeful sadistic nastiness that drives Guy to do what he does. Slater plays with energetic aplomb, but he can’t hold a candle to Spacey for satanic weirdness … And while Matt Smith is good and geeky in the early part of the play, you simply don’t get the idea of him growing into the monster who’s taught him all the rudiments of rudeness.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “This play … an inside job adapted by Michael Lesslie from George Huang's admired 1994 movie … makes for a fast-moving evening. My only regret is that, having drawn blood in the first half, it literally spills it in the second. Huang's thesis is familiar: Hollywood is a shark-infested pool … As the double-dealing escalates we are never quite sure who, literally and metaphorically, is screwing whom. When it sticks to exposing the shabby politics of the movie business, the play hits the target … But, although we are begged not to reveal the ending, it's fair to say the play goes off the rails when it apes one of Buddy's own viciously exploitative movies … Wilson Milam's production is powered by a high-voltage performance from Christian Slater as the bullshitting Buddy … Matt Smith also skilfully shows Guy's transformation from innocent Candide to corrupted schemer, and Helen Baxendale almost makes one believe in Dawn's unbesmirched integrity. It's just a pity that, having started out as satire, the evening dwindles into sensationalism.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Slater opts for bullying bluster, delivering laborious insults with snarling energy but little panache. It is unfortunate for Swimming with Sharks
that is has opened in the same week as Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a dramatist who makes demotic dialogue sing and sizzle and who has written much better about Hollywood than anything on offer here. Nevertheless, though often plodding, the piece just about holds the attention … I didn’t believe for a moment in either of the two big twists, and the whole show, with its unpleasant underlying vein of sadism and misogyny, isn’t nearly light enough on its feet. The surprisingly diminutive Slater … plays the vile Buddy with manifest relish and a small glimmer of charisma, but too often uses a bludgeon when a scalpel would be more effective. Swimming with Sharks ultimately proves neither as clever, nor as much fun, as it promises.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “An exuberant Christian Slater plays Buddy Ackerman, a depraved, misogynistic and outrageous film producer who would argue good taste is a matter best left to cooks … Slater, good at playing angelic-looking bad-boys or rebels, cannot discover Buddy's malignity. He does not peddle a convincing line in wickedness, looks too young and wholesome. Voice often maintained a few decibels below a monotonous yell of abuse, eyes rarely engaging with his victims, Slater permits Buddy no gradations in his bullying rudeness, no light and shade, none of the brooding quiet or sinister menace that ought to precede his eruptions … The interesting idea, not well developed in Wilson Milam's slow-moving, jerky production, is to show how Matt Smith's dashingly comic and eloquently put-upon idealist, Guy - would-be film producer and script-writer - is exploited and corrupted by Buddy while battling to produce the film himself … The climactic settling of scores, in an encounter teetering on melodrama's verge and then falling headlong into it, invites disbelief. Smith, a superb young actor, would need to show earlier signs of emotional disturbance for the scene to work … You need better arguments and plotting than provided in Swimming with Sharks for this thriller to be taken seriously.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “In Michael Lesslie's theatrical reworking of the cult movie Swimming with Sharks, Slater tries to emerge in his own right from the shadow of Kevin Spacey's screen portrayal of Buddy Ackerman … Slater is better than okay in Wilson Milam's slick production, but he plays Buddy on one note as a bad-tempered, self-amused bullock of a man. Spacey brought a mockingly female streak to this script-throwing tyrant … It was a feature that sat intriguingly and unsettlingly with the character's pronounced misogyny, but that layer of comic irony is beyond Slater's powers. Lesslie has made the motivations clearer and tightened the triangle at the play's centre … Unfortunately, even though it's handled better than in the movie, it's impossible to believe for a moment in the love that allegedly grows between Guy and Dawn, a drawback that the performances fail to mitigate. Lesslie's version radically alters the structure … The play keeps us waiting for two hours and ten minutes for the aggro and so loses the whole revealing perspective created by alternating causes and consequences and reversing of the identities of victims and the abusers. One of the many ways in which the material is better suited to the screen than to the stage is that it's more of a poetically just come-uppance for a Hollywood producer to sink to the level of butt in a film than in a play.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) – “The persistent vogue for theatre that plunders cinema for inspiration can seem small cause for celebration to those of us who would prefer to see the artform generating fresh stories. And Lesslie’s stage version of a movie about movies, peppered with updated pop culture references, offers scant justification for its existence. It’s dramatically uninteresting, and in Wilson Milam’s production oddly inert, lacking in tension or impetus and proceeding at a pretty pedestrian pace to a rather lame melodramatic climax and a predictably minor-key conclusion. It also has a nasty undertaste of sexism, less in Buddy’s misogynistic behaviour - which is itself a subject of the piece’s satire – than in its actual portrayal of women. Females here are either disposable bimbos pertly prepared to service the powerful, or beacons of integrity and morality. Slater plays Buddy with the bounce and tautness of an overstretched rubber band and a voice as metallic and biting as a mantrap … But while Slater is very watchable and has great timing, he’s neither the marrow-freezing monster nor the wily tactician that black comedy demands. And none of the cast is helped because while some of Lesslie’s dialogue is whip-smart, elsewhere the jokes often misfire … The play toys with notions of dumbing down and artistic responsibility, but never properly engages with them … The production has its moments of bitter mirth; but in the end, it feels pretty pointless.”
- by Terri Paddock