Review – Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, 18th July 2019

Bitter WheatMrs Chrisparkle isn’t the greatest fan of David Mamet but the Squire of Sidcup and I really enjoyed Glenglarry Glen Ross a while back so we decided to book to see Bitter Wheat on the strength of its writer and because neither of us had seen John Malkovich in the flesh before. Then came the reviews: one star, two stars, one star, one star…. offensive play, bad acting, underwritten characters, lazy direction… it doesn’t give you much confidence in what you’re going to see.

FeinThe concept of the offensive play is a fascinating one. The first audiences of Edward Bond’s Saved were offended by the play because of its infamous baby-stoning scene. Mary Whitehouse was offended by The Romans in Britain (even though she’d never seen it) because Roman soldiers rape native Celts in a rather heavy-handed metaphor for invasion. I don’t believe either of those plays particularly set out to offend; they just contained scenes which, for whatever reason, shocked some members of the audience into recognising unpleasant truths. On the other hand, a light-hearted entertainment like Oh Calcutta, which had no serious axe to grind, was probably more likely have been assembled with the intention of offending some people; and Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, with its cast directly criticising, ridiculing and abusing the audience, does exactly what it says on the tin. Is Bitter Wheat to be added to the list of offensive plays?

Yung Kim Li and FeinMamet’s new and very black comedy satirises the Harvey Weinsteins of this world. His character Barney Fein is a belligerent and manipulative movie mogul who schedules, into his daily routine, ways of taking advantage of young actresses, cheating writers out of their fees, blackmailing his staff and acquaintances, and ignoring the needs of his only relative, his mother. Not a nice man. When the young starlet of new film Dark Water, exhausted and starving after a 27 hour flight from Seoul to Hollywood, arrives for a business meeting, he has no intention of giving her film the backing she and it needs unless she performs some kind of sexual favour first. Shocked, scared and disgusted, her natural reaction is to somehow get out of harm’s way; however, her career depends on this deal, so she’s resigned to, as the old phrase might go, Shut Your Eyes and Think of Korea. How far can he push her? Will she give in? And will there be consequences? I must keep some of the plot back so that you have to come to see the play to find out!

Doctor and FeinLet’s be frank here; there’s been a casting couch for as long as there’s been casting. It wasn’t that long ago that the tongue-in-cheek joke used to go something like: “Who do I have to sleep with to get a job here?” with its subsequent variant, “who do I have to sleep with not to get a job here?” Revolting and despicable though they may be, there’s nothing new about a Weinstein or a Fein. What is new, is the Internet, and its free flow of information and opinion, and individuals’ first-hand accounts, closely allow us to be involved with – almost complicit in – the activities of such monsters.

Sondra and FeinAnd I think it is the complicity that is the most powerful undercurrent in this play. Splendid actors like Doon Mackichan as Fein’s PA Sondra, or Teddy Kempner as his Viagra-providing doctor, actors whom audiences automatically love and identify with, play characters who know full well what Fein gets up to inter alia, and figuratively hold their noses whilst they enable him to – literally – rape and pillage. As witnesses, we the audience are also asked to dip our hands in the blood and be complicit in his actions. Sondra, the doc, and assistant Roberto allow themselves to be offended and allow others to be abused in order to keep their good jobs, high status and nice incomes. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not offensive (in dramatic terms), that’s challenging, which is what I seek from theatre.

Casting CouchI must add: I’m not in any way casting any doubt on the legitimacy of #metoo accounts, or downplaying the sheer horror of their consequences. What men like Fein do is simply unacceptable and criminal. But to find this play offensive just because it portrays Fein’s modus operandi through the medium of black comedy rather than through serious drama is to miss the point. Even a wretch like Fein can make himself likeable when it comes to the crunch; indeed, he has to, to get away with it. When society doesn’t act to block his ruthless and selfish pursuit of women, we, as a society, are partly culpable for his actions too.

Fein and TaitteThe play is dominated by Fein, so, unsurprisingly, the production is dominated by John Malkovich. Never off stage, he cuts the most grotesque figure. Cantankerous, belittling, and totally self-obsessed, he never listens to what people say to him because his own voice is his only music. Mr Malkovich inhabits Fein’s body with repugnant accuracy; small details, like his need to rock back and forwards a couple of times in order to get the physical impetus to stand up, work perfectly. When the world closes in on him, his self-pity comes to the fore, choosing to blame all his problems on being fat, instantly taking to the window ledge in a hollow, but ostentatious nod towards a suicide attempt – and you can tell from Ms Mackichan’s unimpressed reaction that he’s done that several times before. Mr Malkovich spits out Fein’s sarcasms and foul-mouthed tirades with dismissive disdain, only revelling in the words when he’s using them to either a) get the girl or b) blackmail the opponent. It’s a brilliant performance, playing with the grotesque from all angles, making us laugh at his repulsiveness.

Fein and the WriterDoon Mackichan is excellent as Sondra, a role that’s not underwritten as some critics have said, rather the character understands that she must choose her words very carefully to avoid falling into all the traps that her vile boss lays with every sentence. She tries her best to do a proper PA job and knows she has to go along with his devious plans in order to remain employed; Ms Mackichan very shrewdly portrays that fine line between disgust at him and disgust at herself. There’s also a very strong West End debut from Ioanna Kimbook as Yung Kim Li, the respectable and vulnerable young woman who slowly realises how she is being trapped and manipulated, conveying beautifully not only her horror and disgust at Fein’s intentions but also her disappointment at the realisation that someone she regarded as a hero is in fact a zero.

Roberto and FeinIf you decided to skip this show on the strength of the reviews, think again. Sure, it presents us with a pretty seedy side of life, but you’re a mug if you think stuff like this doesn’t happen. Unchecked, men like Fein carry on; Mamet shows how he can even find a way of extricating himself from the narrowest of squeaks at the end of the play. Recommended!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!