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Review Round-Ups

Could critics separate the Bitter Wheat from the chaff?

David Mamet's new play had its West End premiere and the reviews are in

Ioanna Kimbook and John Malkovich
© Manuel Harlan

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage

"David Mamet has written some of the best and most provocative plays of the 21st century. And then he's written Bitter Wheat, which is not really a play at all but an unfocused and tawdry howl of anger which unforgivably wastes the talents of its greatest asset, its leading man John Malkovich."

"Barney Fein (Malkovich) is a pantomime villain, a buffoon rather than a real threat; when he traps a young actress (Ioanna Kimbook) in his hotel room, he is disgusting rather than frightening. As directed by Mamet himself, the entire play lands on stage like an ugly lump of exactly the commodity Fein is so proud of selling to an unsuspecting public."

"He is categorically not Harvey Weinstein and yet the play's entire first act seems to be based entirely on the testimony of the women who have levelled accusations at the disgraced movie producer, all of which Weinstein has denied."

Holly Williams, Time Out


Maybe I'll get accused of adhering to some kind of feminazi agenda, but the best things about Bitter Wheat are the women, even though their parts are thin. Recent graduate Ioanna Kimbook makes an impressive West End debut as Yung Kim Li, Fein's prey – there's no Mamet rug-pulling here, she really is a resilient individual with real integrity. What Kimbook conveys, quite brilliantly, is that bright, polite performance of disarming charm women have to do around intense, weird, old men – the softly-softly managing of a scary situation.

"Doon Mackichan is also commanding as Fein's long-suffering but long-profiting secretary Sondra: she nails a compelling mix of scorn and pragmatism. She's by far the most interesting character in the play, one with hints of actual conflict and complexity. Hopefully someone will one day write her play, and we can all forget this one."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"Mamet, who also directs, seems to suggest that the artistic establishment, for all the noise it makes about its liberal credentials, is packed with vacuous poseurs. But it's an idea he fails to flesh out, and the other characters, including Mackichan as Fein's robotically complicit assistant Sondra, are far too thinly drawn.

"The clunky production draws attention to the writing's many contrivances, not least a baffling subplot in which Fein's mother is gunned down by an illegal immigrant. Despite a smattering of Mamet's famously staccato wisecracks, the play feels lazy, crude and empty."

Alice Jones, The i News


"In the second half, things get much worse – for Fein and for the audience. For Yung Kim Li, who knows? She vanishes, her usefulness to the story having expired. We're left with the spectacle of Fein contemplating his crumbling empire. There is no emotional reckoning, nor recognition of pain. Fein's long-time PA Sondra (Mackichan who does good things with a threadbare role) just… wanders off."

"Mamet doesn't even bother to give his play a proper ending; he might just as well have zoomed in on Malkovich giving us a big wink. The theatrical equivalent of clickbait."

David Lister, The Independent


"Malkovich, prowling the stage like a bloated, warped colossus, plays the not even thinly disguised Weinstein figure, Barney Fein. He is present on stage throughout and dominates it with a towering performance that conveys not just the vulgarity, the bullying, and the predatory nature of the movie mogul, but also the paranoia that helped to define Harvey Weinstein."

"Malkovich captures so well the bluster and sexual hubris that unfettered power gave the mogul. But he also captures the insecurities that were part of Weinstein's psychological make-up. As with the real movie mogul, Fein is ashamed of his weight, assuming that the only possible reason his gross advances are rejected is that he is fat."

Tim Bano, The Stage

"We don't need this play to prove Mamet can write good dialogue, or to expose the deep-set rot of the Hollywood machine. Mamet's cool cynical detachment, with which he can take aim at the whole damn system, is pointless. It's like arguing for both sides of a suppurating wound.

Maybe time will soften things and this will prove to be an acute deconstruction of masculinity and privilege and power. It would have just been nice if, at some point, any point, someone could have said: 'Er David, maybe it's a bit too soon.' "

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"The main reason why this play is so ineffectual is that the hero is unrelievedly vicious. Lacking the diabolical charisma of a Richard III or the glib smoothness of a Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses – a part Malkovich famously played – he simply comes across as a power-addicted predator of bottomless cynicism."

"The best performance in Mamet's production comes from Mackichan, who invests Fein's PA with an understated disdain, and Kimbook plays Li with the right resilience. The remaining four roles are unbelievably thin and, although the play has a few flicks of wit, it is unlikely to arouse the fierce passions of a piece like Oleanna."