THEATRE / Completely nuts: Paul Taylor on Mamet's Squirrels at the King's Head Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
THIS coming June holds out what promises to be an inflammatory theatrical experience when Oleanna - David Mamet's controversial play about alleged sexual harassment and political correctness in an American college - hits the main stage of the Royal Court in a production by Harold Pinter.

Meanwhile, Mamet-fanciers can find diversion at the King's Head Theatre, which is presenting the much belated European premier of Squirrels, a short early work first seen in Chicago in 1974.

A fast-talking absurdist comedy, it focuses - like his later play A Life in the Theatre - on an old 'pro' and his young protege, writers in this case rather than actors. With growing resentment, the ambitious newcomer, Edmond (Steven O'Shea) endeavours to assist Arthur, his blocked boss (Edward Petherbridge) who has been stuck on the opening paragraph of the story for the last 15 years. Their futile labours are periodically interrupted by the office cleaning lady (Sara Kestelman), a fiesty former flame of Arthur's.

The cast of Aaron Mullen's production are perfectly attuned to the kind of obsessive, quietly zany comedy required, and before the joke wears thin and you begin to wonder whether the play suffers from the same syndrome as its characters, there are some terrific laughs at the expense of the compulsive semantic hair-splitting, the entanglement in trivia and the misplaced desire for grandiose generalisation that hobble the narrative.

The story - how to put this? - concerns a man on a park bench who puts a hand out to a squirrel, gets it bitten and then tries to strangle it with his other hand. Will that do? No, as Arthur urges agitatedly: 'We start afresh; we search for guts.' Mamet had already written a play entitled Duck Variations; this one could be called Squirrel Variations, or The Nut-Gatherer Suite. 'A man goes into the park with no intention of strangling a squirrel but does so.' 'The park, scene of man's violence and animal hunger . . .' But wait, there's to be a second squirrel: 'A man, incapable of distinguishing between squirrels, goes into a park.' And couldn't we do better than 'man'? Edmond goes for elevation: 'Some homeless man, some receptacle of the godhead . . .'

Anyone who strings words together for a living will wince with recognition, even as he falls about laughing at these desperate, repeatedly stalled efforts to get the show on the road. As one confidently expects, the play traces a transference of power to the younger man. By the end, he has made the revolutionary change of subject matter and replaced squirrels with geese. ('Is it the squirrels you object to? I'm not tied down to any particular animal,' proffers his now defenceless mentor.) But it's clear that he hasn't managed to avoid some of the older man's worst stylistic faults.

The dramatisation of these shifts is, however, not nearly so well observed or so symbolically charged as that Mamet would stage between the two actors in A Life in the Theatre. There, as the youth becomes more successful, the clapped-out pro views his erstwhile protege with a complex mixture of jealous and pained possessiveness. The emotional stakes are higher because of the different nature of the art form. Theatre, unlike literature, is ephemeral, unpreserved; an actor's successors are therefore his sole posterity, the play implies, and these, like children, move ungratefully on. Nothing so haunting as this in Squirrels, but a decent measure of hilarity.

Box Office: 071-226 1916.

(Photograph omitted)