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
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The Independent Culture

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