At the Apollo, James Macdonald’s production features Jonathan Pryce as Shelly Levene, the salesman on the skids who is desperate for a last chance, some leads to clinch a deal on the sale of lucrative plots for development, a deal that might take him back to the top of the board and into the ownership of a prize Cadillac. Pryce appeared in the 1992 film as James Lingk, the sucker drawn into a purchase by Al Pacino’s Richard Roma. That scene is here played by Aidan Gillen as a tousled, cherubic Roma and Tom Smith as the poor daft Lingk – the weakest Lingk, in fact – whose wife sends him back in the second act to try and pull out of the deal.
The Donmar version laid a strange air of menace and foreboding over the action. Macdonald’s approach is the opposite, absolutely unvarnished, straight down the middle, played at a cracking pace.
The first three scenes – the designer is Anthony Ward – are set in an impersonal Chinese restaurant where Levene humiliates himself before the craven office manager, John Williamson (Peter McDonald has replaced Anthony Flanagan at short notice); Dave Moss (Matthew Marsh) tries to enlist George Aaronow (Paul Freeman) in a plan to burgle the office and sell off the leads to a rival business; then Roma sets up Lingk.
Thirty-five minutes. Interval. Second act: big laugh as curtain goes up on a chaotically despoiled office, now filling the huge stage, disconsolate salesmen reeling around in grey suits as if hit by a truck. The police investigation provides a whodunit theme while the salesmen become increasingly desperate and the focus tightens on Levene and Roma and their special relationship.
It’s swift and heady stuff, rattled out with urgency of men whose lives are falling apart but who didn’t have all that much to lose anyway. The denouement is a wonderful, sickening surprise, but like everything else in Macdonald’s production, it steals up on you like a snake in the grass. Another 45 minutes. Curtain descends on a painful caesura, almost a merciful release.
The ensemble playing is superb, although some might feel that Macdonald has slightly defused the Mamet crackle on a big stage just as he deliberately muffled the Sarah Kane hysteria when he put Blasted on the Royal Court main stage.
There are no false pyrotechnics in the playing, just slippery watchfulness and the odd thrust in the ribs. Pryce and Gillen exert a charismatic tarnished charm, one a silver grey urban fox, the other rumpled and transparently untrustworthy. It’s a classy short burst, but is it too quick and too slight for the West End at those prices?
- Michael Coveney