Blood and Gifts, House of Games and Design for Living

Blood and Gifts, NT Lyttelton, London, House of Games, Almeda, London, and Design for Living, Old Vic, London

A political thriller about Afghanistan, now that ought to be enthralling. The action in Blood and Gifts by US playwright JT Rogers – premiering at the National, begins in 1981. The Soviet Army was, of course, the occupying force back then, having invaded in 1979.

Rogers tracks the manoeuvres of a (fictional) CIA agent, Lloyd Owen's James Warnock, from his first arrival on the Pakistani side of the border – cool as a cucumber, with attaché case in hand. Thereafter, he swiftly begins supplying weapons to Islamic guerrilla fighters, bolstering their anti-Soviet jihad and hoping they'll remain loyal allies.



We see him collaborating with Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which insists on backing the (non-fictional) fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Warnock agrees, barely batting an eyelid. At the same time he's hedging his bets, sloping off to woo a rival militia.



All this is interesting in outline. But, oh, how tedious Warnock's shenanigans prove when played out on stage. Sorely disappointing after Rogers' 2006 Cottesloe debut (his Rwandan drama, The Overwhelming), Blood and Gifts comes over as a B-rate screenplay. It's just begging for lavish cinematography to distract from its longueurs, but this production, directed by Howard Davies, is visually bland. A beige box set, with minimal extras, represents everything from ISI and CIA offices to wild mountain landscapes.



Owen is a sort of boring James Bond, without the sci-fi gismos or the sexploits. Square-jawed and sleek-suited, he's mainly expressionless and unengaging. Intensifying anxieties are signalled by twitchy fingers then rounds of macho shouting. Would that the central character were, instead, the frustrated chap playing second fiddle, Warnock's British counterpart Simon Craig (excellent Adam James). He's far more sympathetic and hilarious when fulminating: a forthright loose cannon. Matthew Marsh is fascinating, too, playing the Russian spook who pursues Warnock, insisting adversaries need to talk.



Perversely, the play keeps off stage the other characters we want to see. These guys' private lives – painfully falling apart – are never fleshed out, their wives spoken of but not seen. Hekmatyar, likewise, remains just a name. Nor does this play tackle the current conflict, although it does highlight how the US, myopically focused on the Cold War, armed its future foe.



The long view on Afghanistan was more illuminatingly presented in the Tricycle's recent cycle of plays, The Great Game, which charted the saga of this strife-torn land from the mid-19th century – including a pithier, one-act version of Blood and Gifts en route.



The Almeida, meanwhile, has become hooked on adapting movies. Only a mug would theatrically try to match a big-screen classic, I usually think. Yet I greatly enjoyed Richard Bean's new stage version of House of Games. That's David Mamet's dark teaser (from 1987) about a celebrity psychotherapist, Dr Margaret Ford, who finds herself drawn – by a compulsive gambler – into the underworld of poker-playing confidence tricksters. Played by Nancy Carroll in Lindsay Posner's strongly cast production, Ford becomes an accomplice and is amorously entangled with the seductive conman, Mike (Michael Landes), all under the guise of research for her next bestseller.



Bean plays fast and loose with the original script. Some punters may, indeed, feel cheated. In this instance, though, such morphing is in the spirit of Mamet's own unsettingly protean fraudsters, pretenders forever assuming new identities. The Almeida's version remains a tight, claustrophobic piece of theatre. The action is played out on two levels, with Mike's low-lit den of a bar room lurking beneath Ford's clinical, white office (arresting set design by Peter McKintosh). And Posner has fine-tuned everyone's deceptive games – layer upon layer of acting – so you're kept tensely uncertain and amused.



Carroll has a calculating side as well as a vulnerable one, while all Landes' cronies pitch their performances perfectly between the grittily real and the grotesque: Trevor Cooper's vast, leering George; Al Weaver's wired Billy; and John Marquez as the Hell's Angel barman.



The seriocomic balance isn't so great in Anthony Page's hit and miss production of Design for Living. Noël Coward's risqué, 1930s portrait of a ménage à trois. What's delightfully timeless about Coward is that, in spite of the period furniture and the arch posturing of some of his repartee, the characters' wit seems to render them modern. Andrew Scott is particularly droll, as the barbed playwright Leo.



The central, booze-sodden scene is deliriously funny, when he and Tom Burke's Otto – discovering they've both been ditched by Gilda – drink themselves senseless. The moment when they collapse into each other's arms and kiss, in turn, delicately conveys a history of schoolboy love. Still, overall in this production, one hankers for more psychological depth.



'Blood and Gifts' (020-7452 3000) to 2 Nov. 'House of Games' (020-7359 4404) to 6 Nov. 'Design for Living' (0844 871 7628) to 27 Nov.



Next week



Kate Bassett is away, leaving Claudia Pritchard to be overwhelmed – or not – by Stephen Sondheim's Passion at the Donmar

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?