Here’s a treat: two fairly unknown David Mamet plays, both about journeys, one by sea, the other by train, produced by a new ad hoc company, Play Productions; and directed, to a very high standard, by Abbey Wright in the smaller of the two new Arcola studios.
It’s a fully justifiable case of jobs for the boys. The 60-minute Lakeboat (1970) is Mamet’s first play, drawing on his experience as a steward on a cargo ship as a student. He re-wrote it a few years later and, while it reminds you a little of Eugene O’Neill's short sea plays, it definitely sounds, swears and sings like Mamet.
Mamet’s surrogate, Dale (boyish, but not very Jewish, Steven Webb), is the new cook following the hospitalisation of his predecessor. He’s inducted in the routine by a collection of old salts and regaled with tales of drinking, dry humping and failed pipe dreams.
The ship plies the Great Lakes, and Helen Goddard’s terrific broken down design of red steel innards and girders takes you right below decks, and then transforms effortlessly into a railroad parlour car heading West through Wisconsin in 1910.
The shorter (25 minutes) Prairie du Chien, a 1979 radio play, works brilliantly in the theatre, as Max Stafford-Clark first proved, setting up an increasingly tense card game as counterpoint to a tale of mystery, murder and suspicion across the way.
The company is compellingly led by RSC veteran Nigel Cooke as both a sailor who sees his younger self in the studious Dale and the rapt storyteller on the train. And the eight-strong company includes Mark Lewis as a cynical old fireman; Chris Jarman as a wonderfully resonant black pierman, then porter; and Rory Keenan as a boastful sex athlete and a jumpy gin player.
On the one hand, a piece of edgy dramatic atmosphere; on the other, a tale of violence and obsession punctuated with an increasingly uneasy card game. At the point of eruption on the opening night, a loud scream pierced the night air. And it came from the audience.