True West (Tricycle Theatre)

Philip Breen’s revival of Sam Shepard’s modern classic transfers to London

The Tricycle has done London theatre a great service in importing this brilliant and lacerating revival of Sam Shepard's signature play, True West (1980), intact from the Glasgow Citizens, where it was seen at the end of last year.

Two brothers, one a Hollywood screenwriter, the other a wild drunken hobo wandering the Mojave desert, meet after five years in their mother's suburban Californian home, exchange rival fantasies and ancient grudges, smash the place up, descending into feral chaos and violent hostility.

The more I see the play – and that's a lot, since I first saw Antony Sher and Bob Hoskins at the National and John Malkovich and Gary Sinise off-Broadway 30 years ago – the more I suspect that Austin the writer and Lee the last gasp of the old Western cowboy are complementary facets of the same person, that person being Shepard himself.

This has led actors in the past to alternate the roles – Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko at the Donmar, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly on Broadway, Nigel Harman and John Light in Sheffield last year – but although there's a strong element of role reversal in Philip Breen's production, there's no way these two actors could do the same.

Irish screen star Eugene O'Hare is a slight, meticulous Austin, fingering his typewriter as if it were a piano, gradually sucked into the horrifying realisation that his world of imagination has been invaded and colonised. Similarly, Alex Ferns – best known as the villainous Trevor Morgan in EastEnders – becomes increasingly recognisable as the archetypal realist road and landscape writer dressed in wolf's clothing. It's a sign of the play's poetic complexity that at no stage do these developments seem schematic or false.

The scenes are revealed in a shutter-like opening onto Max Jones' sleekly designed suburban interior, the azure skies of the desert beyond the chrome fittings and functional (soon to be dysfunctional) furniture. There's a taut, tense atmosphere as the brothers step warily around each other, the stakes changing with the arrival of Austin's agent, the glibly accommodating Saul Kimmer (Steven Elliot), in white trousers; Saul's immediately sold on Lee's outline of two no-hopers chasing each other's tails round the desert as a new "old" Western. He makes movies. Films are for the French.

The boys' Mom (Barbara Rafferty) returns from Alaska in the last scene ("Did you see any igloos?") and, in the background, is their unseen father, a hopeless alcoholic (like Shepard's) and the great story of him losing his teeth in a chop suey take-out meal on the Mexican highway. The climax, with an array of stolen toasters and much wielding of golf clubs (alas, poor typewriter) is shocking, visceral, metaphoric. The stage-management's clean-up and pre-set job must be the biggest nightmare of all.

Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing to True West on 18 September and get your ticket, a FREE poster and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast – all for £20.00