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Review Round-up: Old Vic Scores a High Speed Hit

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Hollywood actors, and real-life friends, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey play Hollywood producer buddies Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox in the Old Vic’s 20th anniversary revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, which opened last night (12 February 2008, previews from 1 February) for a limited season to 26 April (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).

In Speed-the-Plow, Gould and Fox engage in a verbal boxing match centred around the eternal debate of art versus money. Should Gould go for another bad blockbuster that will make his fortune or put himself on the line for an adaptation of a spiritual, apocalyptic novel offered to him by his beautiful secretary Karen?

The three-hander’s cast is completed by British musical theatre star Laura Michelle Kelly, who makes her play acting debut in the production, alongside Goldblum making his West End debut. The Old Vic production is directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Rob Howell – whose most recent collaborations include Boeing-Boeing and The Lord of the Rings - with lighting by Paul Pyant.

It’s not often the first night critics unanimously agree on something, but this production of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is one of those rare occasions. Mainly down to Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum’s “high-octane acting”, the piece has received four-star rave reviews hailing it as “an absolute blast of a smash hit” and “infinitely better than the National premiere in 1989”. Together, the critics agree, Spacey and Goldblum create the “virtuoso double act” in Matthew Warchus’ “exhilarating” and “cracking” revival.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow has lost none of its bravura brilliance or ironic take on Hollywood creative morality. In Matthew Warchus’ crackling revival, Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey prove the hottest double act in town … Goldblum is about eight feet tall and as elegant as a heron. His stage movement is fantastic, a sort of hip-swivelling shimmy with finger-clicks and fancy footwork while Spacey bounces around after him like an untrained puppy. I see a lot of Spacey’s hero, Jack Lemmon, in this performance, its slouch and panic-stricken small-mindedness. Hardly letting each other complete a sentence, the impact is electrifying … While the show’s main weakness is the lack of fire power in Kelly’s messianic central speeches – she looks absolutely gorgeous but is frankly over-parted – it soon recovers in this final, shattering section. Rob Howell’s sleek design, lit with provocative extremes of shade and brightness, by Paul Pyant, matches the performances perfectly. Warchus’ revival is infinitely better than the National premiere in 1989 and more exciting than the West End version eight years ago.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “In Matthew Warchus' exhilarating revival we not only get some bravura, high-octane acting from Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum but a also sense of the ultimate hollowness of an industry, and a society, based on buddy-buddy values. The set-up is classic Mamet … In Warchus' helter-skelter production, we grasp the spiritual overtones while relishing the air of satanic buoyancy; and Spacey, in particular, gives a masterly performance as Charlie. He's so pumped up by the bitch-goddess success that he does yoga exercises while frantically puffing on a cigarette … The greatness of Spacey's performance, however, lies in the suggestion that, under the comic bluster and feverish energy, exists a desperate human being and a source of infinite corruption. Goldblum offers a perfect foil as Bobby … Laura Michelle Kelly has exactly the right teasing ambiguity: she's an indecipherable mix of Joan of Arc and ambitious studio go-getter. It's the acting that motors the evening; and what comes across, through the hectic, often overlapping dialogue, is the sense that language is a form of camouflage rather than a means of communication.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Wow, these two guys are on fire. Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum take to the stage of the Old Vic in David Mamet’s Hollywood satire as if determined to set the place ablaze. And they do just that … Both actors deliver Mamet’s sharp, smart, rat-a-tat dialogue with a panache that creates a thrill of pure pleasure. And though every word is scripted, there is a wild, wired spontaneity about these performances, a daring overlapping of speeches, and an ability to turn the mood on a sixpence that puts one in mind of two improvising jazz musicians at the very top of their game. As well as capturing all the verbal rhythms and comic panache of Mamet’s writing, the pair also prove exceptional physical actors. Just the sight of the implausibly tall Goldblum’s pipe-cleaner legs and goofy hangdog face makes one smile … Spacey, in contrast, as Charlie Fox, is by turns obnoxious, funny, pitiful, scabrous, cunning and scary … During the performance itself the charismatic brilliance of Spacey and Goldblum, and the subtle radiance of Kelly, silence all niggling criticism of Mamet’s brilliant but flawed script. There’s no doubt: the Old Vic has an absolute blast of a smash hit on its hands.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - In “Matthew Warchus' breakneck, intriguingly balanced revival … the recently promoted head of production, Goldblum's lithe, leggy, finger-clicking Bobby Gould zig-zags round his new office with a snappy, fast-talking cool. Kevin Spacey, playing his long-time buddy, Charlie Fox, is a nervous wreck of wired-up, hyperactive elation. He can't believe his luck. Just when he has the chance to cash in on this connection, along comes the script of a routine prison buddy movie that's bound to be a smash because there's a bankable star on board … Warchus' astute, high-powered production shows great canniness in the casting of the third character, a temporary secretary who threatens to drive a wedge between the friends when she proposes a rival project. Tapping into the not-quite-of-this-world quality she had in Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly makes you believe in the temp's rhapsodic belief in the project. Thanks to her air of enigmatic integrity, you are prepared to credit that her convictions are not compromised by a willingness to use sex as a means of persuasion, and that she is the cause of a Damascene flash of idealism in Gould.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “What a rare, theatrical triumph Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum achieve with their virtuoso double act in Speed-the-Plow. By sheer acting firepower, they help disguise the fact that David Mamet's famous assault on the philistine materialism of the Hollywood movie industry, its immoralists, hustlers and dimwits, packs a pretty soft punch … Spacey has long been a master of full-frontal menace and vituperation, but he surpasses himself in the climactic act of Speed-the-Plow as Charlie Fox the freelance film producer … For Goldblum's elegantly vacuous studio head or airhead, Bobby Gould, has fallen for a temporary secretary, Laura Michelle Kelly's well-upholstered but pallid Karen, and her own hippie choice of film script … Matthew Warchus' dynamically choreographed production encourages Spacey and Goldblum to maintain terrific physical momentum … Laura Michelle Kelly, a notable leading lady in musicals, makes an odd choice for the role of Karen, whose sexual power and eagerness to spellbind Bobby with post flower-power mysticism she does not convey in a sometimes inaudible performance … (But) the Spacey/Goldblum combination proves a winning one.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “David Mamet’s satire on Tinseltown greed, need and terminal triviality has its flaws; but it provides two super roles for men able to cope with his brash, breathless dialogue. And last night Jeff Goldblum, playing the head of production at a major studio, and Kevin Spacey, the fixer bringing him a bankable star, didn’t merely rise to the challenge. Nobody with the least interest in acting should miss the snap and crackle, whiz and fizz of, in particular, their opening scene. Imagine a game of ping-pong played with several balls, some filled with hand-grenades, and you’ve the way Spacey and Goldblum manage a swaggering, streetwise poetry that overlaps, breaks off, explodes. The speed is tremendous: less a run than an Olympic sprint over hurdles, with double-somersaults in between. It’s as expertly acrobatic as the Cirque du Soleil — and funnier than anything their clowns have recently concocted. Amazingly, it’s also perfectly clear.”

    - by Tom Atkins

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