Review: Loose change

THEATRE American Buffalo Young Vic, London
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From the second the lights go up, the heat is on. We're in Don's resale shop, there's junk piled up all around and he and Bob are chewing the fat. The first line is a question and it's immediately clear we're in the middle of a status game and the currency is language. Don is giving his gopher Bob a stern lecture. "Action counts," he says, threateningly. "Action talks and bullshit walks."

There can be no more succinct expression of David Mamet's technique. His riveting American Buffalo came a year after the hilarious, tough-talking Sexual Perversity in Chicago and the dialogue and humour are similarly hard-bitten but the action is compressed into a day and the play is much more plot-driven. These two-bit, dime-store hoods are setting up a small- time hit on a guy who walked into the dingy store and found a valuable buffalo-head nickel, when in walks trouble in the shape of Don's friend Teach.

The piece flies on the mesmerising, jagged rhythms of Mamet's quick-fire dialogue that needs to bounce off the walls. Played in the round, the three actors have to work hard to whip up the all-important sense of claustrophobia as they jockey for position, trade expletives, blast questions, demands, thoughts and ideas at one another as the stakes climb ever higher in the ill-fated scam.

Fresh-faced Neil Stuke plays flat-footed Bob, the nice guy who ends up face down, with a nice line in shrugged, hopeful apologies. The typically self-effacing Nicholas Woodeson is tremendous as Don, a mouthy, weak-willed man who believes himself to be on top of every situation. Woodeson carefully builds in every detail of the journey, from the guy in control to his appalled awakening to the horrific consequences of his misplaced trust. By contrast, Douglas Henshall as Teach is too generalised. He adopts a low-slung, lanky swagger which is both at odds with his rapid delivery and dissipates the energy. He leaps on to his lines to up the violence but loses out on the danger of malevolent silence.

Director Lindsay Posner has evidently spent a good deal of time isolating the individual characters' rhythms, but with writing as compact as this, you have to weld them together to make the play work. He relies too heavily on speed to carry us through, as if he's afraid that if the action lets up for a second, the energy will leak away. Alas, pace and tension have nothing to do with speed and everything to do with precision. A little more of that and the play would fire on all cylinders and reveal itself as the powerful American tragedy it is.

Booking: 0171-928 6363. To 15 April