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
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?