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 The Theatreguide.London Review


 

Speed-The-Plow
New Ambassador's Theatre Spring 2000; Duke of York's Theatre, with new cast, Summer 2000

This new revival of David Mamet's 1988 dissection of Hollywood is sharp, comic and in almost every way superior to the original London production at the National Theatre (which, for all its virtues, was rather bland).

Speed-the-Plow resembles Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross in looking at American men in a shady profession doing all they can to convince themselves that they aren't scum. Here it's two Hollywood producers. Bobby Gould (Mark Strong) has just been made head of production, and old buddy Charlie Fox (Patrick Marber) swallows his envy to bring him a real coup - a guaranteed hit with a big action star.

As they almost literally drool at the thought of the millions they will make, they repeatedly pause for ritual reassurances of sincerity, friendship and commitment to art that are clearly phony.

Hilarious as these are (The film will have "action, blood, a social theme."), they are also chilling in their exposure of the men's desperate need for self-delusion, as are the bits of ostensibly friendly banter that betray real bitterness beneath.

Things get complicated when Gould sets out to seduce his new secretary (Kimberly Williams) by giving her a truly lousy and unfilmable book to report on. Improbably, she not only loves it, but convinces him to cancel Fox's project in favour of hers. But Fox is not one to allow an upstart to threaten his big chance, and the gloves come off.

Mamet is sometimes compared to Harold Pinter, but the only real similarity is a fascination with subtext and a capacity for charging the most innocent-seeming conversations with unspoken underlying passions. The power of this production comes from director Peter Gill's success in leading his cast to discover and communicate those emotions, making the evening crackle with tension.

As Gould, Mark Strong begins as the epitome of every oily salesman you've ever met, oozing insincere charm while his beady eyes size you up and wait for a sign of weakness. Later, under the secretary's spell, he takes on the zombie-like blankness of those cult followers who accost you in airports.

Patrick Marber's Fox, on the other hand, is undisguisedly a street fighter at heart. Unkempt, unshaven, he roams the stage like a wolf who sniffs prey and can't believe his luck; and when faced with a competitor, he bares his fangs and attacks.

In previous productions the secretary was played as the simple, earnest figure she first seems to be, with no real hint of the ambition she betrays later. Kimberly Williams gives her a scary intensity from the start, so that when she takes on the blinkered single-mindedness of a zealot defending her book as if it were holy writ, it just seems that she's found a focus for a mad energy that was always there. And you believe it is the force of her personality, and not just sex, that sways Gould.

Speed-the-Plow is frequently very funny, frequently (it goes without saying, being Mamet) very obscene, and always engrossing in its exposure of the games we play to convince others - and ourselves - that we are better than we suspect we are.

Gerald Berkowitz

Duke of York's Theatre Summer 2000: It's great, isn't it, that there's always a David Mamet show playing somewhere in the capital? While not exactly a 'natural' fan (Mamet's a little too mannered for me to ever feel at ease), this is the third production of Speed-The-Plow I've seen in less than a year.

While hardly a great play, I like this tale of swimming with sharks in Hollywood's Producerland because, rather than feeling the innate appallingness of humanity directly connect with you as in Glengarry Glen Ross, here you can sit back and revel in it.

Well, not as much as you'd want to in this particular show. What we have is a reprise of the production seen at the New Ambassador's Theatre a few months ago, first directed by Peter Gill and redirected by Rupert Goold. There's little difference except for an inadvisable tweaking of the final minute.

Speed-The-Plow is a slice-of-life three-hander with each character's beliefs taking centre position across the three acts. Gould is the slick and slimy film studio executive who takes the movie pitch from down-on-his-luck and slimy producer Fox. The appearance of Gould's office temp Karen - on the make but refreshingly unslimy - unravels the deal as swiftly as the two men have struck it.

Mamet mixes satire with situational comedy to create an inspired debate about how money buys everything (honestly!), and it's the strength of his writing that carries the show.

As Gould, Nathaniel Parker is hopelessly miscast. Talented he may be, but I fear that his years focusing on Shakespearean roles across theatre, TV and film are responsible for his flat, workaday portrayal. Neil Morrissey rallies somewhat in the final act, but is otherwise directionless as Fox and rambles along, lacking the confident poise from his TV successes such as Men Behaving Badly.

What I want to know, what you want to know, what any audience wants is to know, within reason, the second a character steps on to the stage is who that character is, where they've come from, where they might be going... But not here, and the director (directors) must take the blame.

In compensation for all of the above, Gina Bellman, rather than play Karen as the bimbo with a soul, gives the hapless secretary (once played by Madonna) an unexpected depth that makes her main scenes entertaining and provoking at the same time. Pity the men can't rise to the challenge.

Go and see this, by all means - it's still a good play and a good evening out and there's lots in the show to talk about on the Tube afterwards. But ultimately what you're forking out your euros for is yet another overdressed case of glum British actors pretending to be flashy Americans they're not.

Nick Awde

 

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Review - Speed-the-Plow - Ambassador's / Duke of York's 2000