Even truer West

Theatre
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The Independent Culture
ONCE effortlessly prolific, Sam Shepard breaks a silence of eight years with Simpatico; and if you walk into it with memories of Matthew Warchus's recent revival of True West, the first impression is that Shepard is rehashing the same material.

Here, yet again, are two former buddies engaged in a Cain and Abel duel somewhere out in the mythic American West. One wears a suit and affects a loquaciously protective manner, behind which he is scared to death. The other slumps on the bed in his squalid den, responding with stone- walling monosyllables, and leaving you in no doubt that he holds the winning cards. They are Carter and Vinnie; and you know from the start that by the end their roles will be reversed. What you do not know is just why Carter has been summoned from his Kentucky mansion to Vinnie's Californian shack. Throughout the play they drop hints about a secret they have shared for 15 years; from which a shadowy crime takes shape, involving the swapping of racehorses and the blackmailing of a racing commissioner with pornographic photos. But in as plotty a play as this, the background story remains elusive to the last.

The reason for this becomes apparent when we meet Simms (Tony Haygarth), the commissioner who occupies the role of third man in the story. Vinnie visits him with a box of compromising material, only to be met by a twinklingly amiable recluse who deftly brushes aside the veiled threats and shows him out. As much as anything, this scene is a contest of styles. Vinnie (a louring Ciaran Hinds) speaks in the taciturn code of a gumshoe- cum-western gunfighter. Everything he says implies something else. Simms knows that language inside out, and simply ignores the threat. One character is stuck in the past; the other has escaped into the present.

Shepard goes on to dramatise this stalemate through the figure of Cecilia, a bewitching American innocent (a lovely dizzy performance by Janet McTeer) who acts as a bridge between the play's two worlds. Vinnie fell for her at a supermarket checkout; but as he and Carter relate to other people only by exploiting them, they dispatch her on another mission to Simms - who amazes her with a flood of heartfelt admiration, which he is able to express because he wants nothing from her. Similarly, where Vinnie and Carter are into horse-racing for profitable scams, Simms's passion is for the disinterested study of blood lines. He knows their game, and he has stopped playing it.

Shepard's work has taken many forms, but it has usually been rooted in the violent myths of American pop culture. In Simpatico he discards them. The last act reversal, where Sean McGinley's superb Carter is reduced to a shivering wreck, confirms the two conspirators as a pair of theatrical has-beens, who can hardly remember their own plot, and whose power to wound has dried up, like Kipling's ancient cobra dashing its venomless fangs against the stones of the Cold Lairs. James Macdonald's electrifying production reveals an author still developing like a forest fire.

"Nothing works!" yells the runaway mother towards the end of Philip Osment's What I Did in the Holidays. Too true. The farm roof leaks like a colander, there's no electricity and no running water, though they have been digging a well since the first scene. The whole family are slogging their guts out, and the farm gives nothing back. Such is the home life of young Morley (Anthony Taylor) during the rainy Devonshire summer before he starts grammar school. Then comes the arrival of two Glaswegian hikers, who his father seizes upon as more unpaid labour for the agricultural succubus that is draining their lives.

Osment's basic fable is that of an impasse unblocked by a catalyst. He tells a good story with plenty of laughs. He also excels in imaginative flashes that reveal what these people might have been in other circumstances; and in picking up life's little accidents - such as the disruption of a picnic by a rogue hornet - to unleash hostilities inside the group. With the exception of the catalytic Cathy (Penny Layden), everybody behaves badly. But in Mike Alfreds' lovingly individualised produc-tion there is nobody, from the snakily manipulative father (Chris Crooks) to the sneaky young protagonist, whom you can dislike.

With Field Day's impassive Uncle Vanya installed at the Tricycle, Robert Sturua's production of The Seagull presents the opposite Chekhovian extreme. It opens with the flight of a paper dart, thrown by the unseen Masha; it ends with Arkadina fearfully counting out the lotto numbers as the other players back away from the table. Everywhere you sense the hand of the director. Picking and choosing beween Sturua's effects, I disliked the idea of treating Dr Dorn (Michael Carter) as a detached intermediary between the characters and the audience, and the imposition of an obsessively lachrymose atmosphere on the Nina-Kostya reunion. Conversely, there are some superb insights: such as Masha (Aisling O'Sullivan) mimicking Nina's hand gestures on the lakeside stage; and the steward Shamraev (Keith Bartlett) emerging both as the real boss of the estate, and as a man who makes a sharp distinction between Arkadina's two roles as an irritating employer and a revered celebrity. The casting, including Michael Sheen's volcanic Kostya and Kate Beckinsale's steadily freezing Nina, is mainly spot-on. But too often it yields judgemental performances: particularly Aden Gillett's Trigorin, who seems to have been told never to look at anybody, and Deborah Findlay's Arkadina, a cari- cature of greedy thespian vanity. Still, Giya Kancheli's elegiac music is transfixingly beautiful.

Roger Michell's production of Under Milk Wood gives the Olivier stage machinery its most ambitious outing since The Wind in the Willows. Not only the stage floor but the whole cubic space is engaged (in William Dudley's design), as Captain Cat's drowned shipmates drift up to the fly- tower as if from the sea bed, and the central revolve lifts and tilts into Llareggub Hill. Apart from Steven Speirs' show-stopping performance of Mr Wakldo's rude ditty, "Come and Sweep my Chimbley", and Denis Graham's delivery of the Rev Eli's "Sunset Poem", the playing is pretty routine. But what really disqualifies the show is its mockery of radio, with a lumbering Down Your Way commentator and a scripted studio scene. Radio performance brought Dylan Thomas's text to imaginative life more than this bag of redundant visual tricks.

`Simpatico': Royal Court, SW1, 0171 730 1745. `What I Did in the Holidays': Drill Hall, WC1, 0171 637 8270. `The Seagull': Guildford Yvonne Arnaud, 0148 344 0000, from 24 Apr. `Under Milk Wood': Olivier, SE1, 0171 928 2252.

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