Monday 13 November 2017

Theatre review: Glengarry Glen Ross

According to Wikipedia, the Playhouse Theatre was designed by F.H. Fowler & Hill. A little-known fact about the architects is that they were semi-sentient, amorphous energy blobs who never actually met a living human being so assumed that, like the Fistyfelch people of Prang Centauri 9, our legs retract completely when we sit down. This is the only possible explanation for the seating in the Upper Circle, where you can't really accuse the audience of bad behaviour for moving around constantly when it's so obviously because they're in actual physical pain (I was on an aisle and there was nobody in the seat in front of me so I could hang my legs over the seat back, and that still wasn't enough leg room, and I'm not tall.) So the burden’s on any show staged there to hold the interest through the distractions; following Speed-the-Plow a couple of years ago, it’s again the turn of a David Mamet revival to try it.

Sam Yates directs Glengarry Glen Ross, in which a team of Chicago salesmen compete to sell the most plots in a Florida real estate development. The winner’s bonus is a Cadillac; the loser, it’s heavily implied, will be fired.

The first act is made up of three short scenes (it’s only 35 minutes to the interval,) set in a Chinese restaurant near their office. At one time the top salesman nicknamed “The Machine,” Shelly (Stanley Townsend) is now barely hanging on to the leaderboard, begging and bribing office manager John (Kris Marshall) to give him better sales leads than he usually gets. Then Moss (understudy Mark Carlisle) has a plan to upset the whole competition by robbing the office and selling the leads to a competitor; he’s trying to entrap Don Warrington’s George into agreeing to pull off the burglary for him. Finally we meet the front-runner, as Ricky Roma (Christian Slater) has a casual chat with a stranger which, it turns out, is actually a high-pressure sales pitch that’ll see James (Daniel Ryan) commit to giving him money he doesn’t have.

For the second act we move to the office, and the aftermath of the robbery which Moss has evidently convinced someone – but was it George after all? – to carry out. Despite the police investigation going on in the next room, the men’s main concern remains their sales figures. Mamet is a master of what we would now call toxic masculinity, and this 1983 play is probably the clearest distillation of that, many of its attitudes dated (although one person in the Upper Circle thoroughly enjoyed the racism,) but its essential power dynamic still recognisable, and only now even beginning to be challenged at the highest levels.

In an issue I often find with productions of Mamet plays, though, the pace isn’t quite as frenetic as it needs to be. I think it comes down to the British actors needing to put on an American accent as well as deliver it at breakneck speed, which would explain why it’s only the real American, Slater, who seems truly comfortable with the patter. I felt like the dialogue too often had pauses where the characters should have been interrupting each other, and I didn’t really get the sense of panic as time runs out. The interval is also unlikely to be helping with the pace; I don’t know if productions usually have one, and Chiara Stephenson’s two detailed sets presumably require some time to change, but I suspect the design could have been done more simply and the interval is there for the usual reason, that the theatre demands one for bar takings, at the expense of the show itself.

There are definite positives in the performances as well though – the highlight is the scene between Townsend and Slater, when Shelly’s briefly got his mojo back and he and Ricky pair up to dupe James. Meanwhile even as everyone else’s desperation leads them to stab each other in the back, John’s disinterested blandness makes him come across as the least likeable in a field where there’s plenty of competition for that title. There’s still powerful moments in Glengarry Glen Ross and at times Yates’ production nails them, but it’s not enough to stop the uncomfortable seating being the most memorable thing about the evening.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet is booking until the 3rd of February at the Playhouse Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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