Thursday, 13 December 2012

Theatre review: The Shawl

The Young Vic's tiny Clare studio seems to be becoming the home for the winners of directing awards: Having already played host to the JMK winner, we now get the Genesis Future Director's Award winner, Ben Kidd. He brings an interesting dynamic to The Shawl, the short 1985 play in which David Mamet returns to his recurring theme of con-artists, this time looking at mediums whose comforting messages from the dead are entirely bogus - or are they? Kidd's production opens with a beautifully spooky touch: Merle Hensel's design sees chairs bolted down in a fairly haphazard-seeming in-the-round configuration, and as the audience take their seats a security camera's live images are shown on a number of TV screens, scattered around the cardboard boxes that line the walls. But when the play starts and Miss A (Denise Gough) enters, with some trepidation, for her first consultation with a psychic, the TV screens show her entering a deserted room, as if the audience are now spirits the cameras can't pick up.

Striking an eerie tone from the off is a good move as Mamet's play typically messes with the audience's expectations throughout. The syrupy psychic John (Nick Fletcher,) all mysticism and platitudes, seems to know more about Miss A's life than even she does, and we gradually learn she's there to find out whether or not to contest her mother's will, which has left rather a large fortune to her stepfather. But when her first consultation is over things change, as we meet Charles (Sam Crane, with a much shorter haircut than usual which really suits him, and even making a woolly hat and grubby vest combo look hot DON'T JUDGE ME,) a young hustler John's taken up with, and he proceeds to teach him all the cons he just used on the vulnerable woman, and exactly how he plans to make money off her. But Charles is impatient, and demands that they get the "ghost" of Miss A's mother to tell her to contest the will, then give all the money to the con-men.

Where Mamet's play is at its most engaging is in how even after exposing John as a fraud, it keeps you thinking that maybe the real trick is on the audience, and there's something supernatural going on after all. Many of his explanations of how he did it make sense (I guessed how the one with the scar worked, although I've just checked my left knee and would appear to be in the 10% it doesn't work on) but some of the tricks of the trade he tells Charles about seem to involve a huge amount of guessing, or a hell of a lot of research for a potentially small reward - as the story goes on it also seems increasingly likely that John actually believes he's doing some good to his victims, by laying their (literal or metaphorical) ghosts to rest. This constant uncertainty is well-handled by Kidd's production, which uses the seating layout to have the actors wander about the audience, making for the odd surprise entrance as well as one very well-done physical moment in the climactic scene (which I turned out, by chance, to be perfectly placed to get the full effect of.)

It's well-performed by the trio, Crane's sexy hustler seeming to be the puppet-master behind the smitten psychic, but perhaps not understanding the power dynamic as well as he thinks he does; Gough and Fletcher dealing with the demands that they play their cards close to the chest and come up with a few surprises. The Shawl ends with a lot of unanswered questions but then it's been apparent from the off that that's kind of the point. It's just a shame I can't recommend you book for it because the ridiculously short run in a tiny venue means it sold out weeks before it even opened.

The Shawl by David Mamet is booking until the 15th of December at the Young Vic's Clare (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour straight through.

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