It’s okay but it’s not great. And in the end it’s really not a patch on the film. Swimming with Sharks (1994) – one of Kevin Spacey’s stunning early successes – has been adapted and slightly updated by playwright Michael Lesslie as a vehicle in which bad boy Christian Slater – taut body, big head, great energy – takes up residence again in the West End.
One has to applaud a project that re-acquaints us with one of the capital’s finest theatres for new plays. The charming Vaudeville has been home to Stomp for the past five years (which is about five years too many in my view) and owners Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer were almost falling over themselves to help the first night audience to their seats. Not a dustbin lid in sight.
Slater plays foul-mouthed, abusive Hollywood executive Buddy Ackerman who inducts new assistant Guy (Matt Smith) into the jungle ethics of bad behaviour in the movie business; Guy falls in with an ambitious producer Dawn Lockard (Helen Baxendale), whose Afghani film project he takes up while falling in love – with her.
Lesslie’s script, apart from a few gratuitous references to people like Paris Hilton (like, why?), 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: the opening credits roll over the corpse and we see how Guy is pushed to murder as a torture campaign washes back over the justification for it.
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, even if he does tinker with little wind-up toys on his desk, or proudly proclaim that he hasn’t made his own cup of coffee since 1993.
The play makes clearer the likelihood of Buddy fabricating the story about his wife’s gang rape and murder. But it also suffers from Baxendale’s Dawn not fully articulating the ambiguous relationship she has with both men. 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.