First Night: Swimming With Sharks, Vaudeville Theatre, London

Slater provides plenty of bite, but lacks in depth
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I'd love to know how much Christian Slater has insured his eyebrows for. A tidy sum, I'd imagine, given that these quizzical crescents of hair have played a major part in his progress to stardom.

Capable of being cocked into near-Gothic arches of subversive cheek, they make him look like Jack Nicholson's stockier, safer nephew – a resemblance that directly resulted in his previous West End role as Randall P McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Those brows are comparatively subdued now, as he takes on the stage incarnation of another film role associated with a master of drop-dead insolence.

In Michael Lesslie's theatrical reworking of the cult 1996 movie, Swimming with Sharks, he tries to emerge in his own right from the shadow of Kevin Spacey's screen portrayal of Buddy Ackerman.

He's the Hollywood producer and bullying boss from hell who systematically aims to reduce his personal assistants to humiliated automata who exist only to "protect his interests and serve his needs".

Slater is better than okay in Wilson Milam's slick production but he plays Buddy on one note as a bad-tempered, self-amused bullock of a man.

Spacey brought a mockingly female streak to this script-throwing tyrant who can't see a sexy skirt without chasing it or someone else's idea without appropriating it and passing it off as his own. It was a feature that sat intriguingly and unsettlingly with the character's pronounced misogyny but that layer of comic irony is beyond Slater's powers.

Lesslie has made the motivations clearer and tightened the triangle at the play's centre. Novice assistant Guy (Matt Smith) is increasingly forced to choose between Buddy, who represents the crass commercialism that exploits the audience's intellectual laziness, and Dawn Lockard (Helen Baxendale) who symbolizes beleaguered integrity as she struggles to get a green light on a script that apparently puts the fun in Arab fundamentalism without any loss of seriousness.

Unfortunately, even though it's handled better than in the movie, it's impossible to believe for a moment in the love that allegedly grows between Guy and Dawn, a drawback that the performances fail to mitigate.

Lesslie's version radically alters the structure. Guy is driven to holding his boss hostage and torturing him in revenge for all the dehumanising slights he's suffered (for example, scarring Buddy's face with staple cuts then throwing lemon juice and hot sauce on them).

The movie shifts between this brutal payback session and a chronological account of the relationship to that point. For obvious wardrobe and make-up reasons, the play keeps us waiting for two hours and 10 minutes for the aggro and so loses the whole revealing perspective created by alternating causes and consequences and reversing of the identies of victims and the abusers ."I saw this in a movie. I think it was one of yours," declares Guy of his hostage-taking.

One of the many ways in which the material is better suited to the screen than to the stage is that it's more of a poetically just come-uppance for a Hollywood producer to sink to the level of butt in a film than in a play. I shall not, of course, reveal how Buddy bounces back, except to say that in both versions, the denouement has to resort to shameless cheating.