American Buffalo at Wyndham’s reviewed: ‘magnificent, multicoloured, vast and tragic’

Plus: another dud from the National, Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman. Is Rufus Norris the David Moyes of theatre?

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

American Buffalo

Wyndham’s, until 27 June


Olivier, in rep until 30 August

David Mamet is Pinter without the Pinteresque indulgences, the absurdities and obscurities, the pauses, the Number 38 bus routes. American Buffalo, from the 1970s, is one of Mamet’s early triumphs. Don is a junkshop owner who believes a customer cheated him over a rare nickel so he gets his young pal Bob to steal it back. An older friend, Teach, persuades Don to ditch Bob and let him commit the burglary. That’s it. That’s all that happens in this narrow, gripping thriller, which takes the brutal male culture of the Wild West and imports it to the Chicago slums where three lonely outcasts fight desperately for scraps of cash and friendship.

On paper it all sounds grey, miserable and petty. On stage it’s magnificent, multicoloured, vast and tragic. And often hilarious. Quite how Mamet makes us sympathise with these low-IQ deadbeats is hard to fathom. Clearly these are solitary, womanless men, who create a ramshackle ersatz family from their companionships and rivalries. Damian Lewis plays Teach as a cocky, brittle but likeable thicko in a natty maroon suit and stacked heels. Beneath the thuggish rawness he brings out the comedy without quite sending the character up (but I bet he’ll succumb to temptation as the run continues). John Goodman’s muted, motherly Don reaches for the psychological core of the character and never goes for the easy laughs. Two great performances. But they’re nearly edged out by the set whose heaped bric-à-brac sprawls across the stage and climbs up the walls as well. Overpondered, I thought to myself. And sure enough the designer Paul Wills muses at length on his inspiration in the programme notes. ‘It’s nestled within a black void. So the men in this play are located within a cave, on an island, in the middle of nowhere.’ Mate? It’s a shop.

Bit of a problem at the South Bank. New boss Rufus Norris seems perturbed by the accusation once levelled at Sir Nicholas Hytner that he hadn’t directed a play by a woman during his tenure. Sir Rufus (as he soon will be) opens his account with two plays by women. A shame both are rubbish. The Lyttelton currently hosts a wordy Civil War drama by Caryl Churchill which is like being trapped in a lighthouse with an autistic lexicographer. Sir Rufus has chosen the Olivier for a showy reworking of the morality play Everyman by Carol Ann Duffy. The director is no less an organism than Sir Rufus himself. Morality plays are those stiff, mannered fables from the late medieval era that evolved into the subtle and searching examinations of human psychology that we know as Elizabethan drama. Watching one of these antiques is a similar punishment to viewing paintings that predate the discovery of perspective.

Everyman (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Sir Rufus gives the corpse a faint pulse by adding lots of zingy dances, flashing lights and nite-spot thump-thump-thump. Very little happens. Everyman is visited by Death, a cocky Irishman in a pathologist’s overalls who threatens to bump him off. This is clearly a nuisance to Everyman but it doesn’t add up to a dramatic mission. And to create a main character devoid of psychological motivation is the blunder of a novice playwright. Carol Ann Duffy, who also works as a poet, writes the dialogue in a vague rhyme-y style, like rap, but with no discernible metrical pattern.

We’re introduced to Everyman’s parents who, I assume, are there as an advertisement for good, honest, working-class northern-ness. These kindly toilers have raised two children, one of whom must have been adopted, but it’s not clear which. Everyman is a charismatic black yuppie with polished Home Counties tones while his sister is a gay white vegan whose Scouse accent is hard to reconcile with her brother’s RSC diction. What happened? Were they plucked from separate orphanages and raised 200 miles apart? Or is it unseemly to ask? If poor Sir Rufus spent a bit more time examining scripts rather than their authors’ loins he might start to produce decent theatre. And fighting prejudice with prejudice simply spreads prejudice. An over-hasty viewer may conclude from these two duds that women are biologically incapable of writing drama.

Neither play would have been accepted by a 30-seat fringe venue. What are they doing at the National? Anyone’s guess. Here’s mine. Sir Rufus has decided that his South Bank empire is a moral poodle-parlour where highminded freethinkers, like himself, can trot along to have their pet prejudices primped, powdered, scented and put on parade. Great fun. As long as you’ve got a big fluffy mutt to exhibit to your chums. If you don’t it’s a bore. Although Sir Rufus has only just got started people are already whispering the dreaded words ‘David Moyes’.

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