House of Games, Almeida, London

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The Independent Culture

The venue launches its new season with what turns out to be an entertaining, but strangely pointless theatrical make-over of House of Games, the 1987 David Mamet screenplay.

Extensively reworked by Richard Bean, this stage version has the same starting point as Mamet's neo-noir psychological thriller. The heroine, Margaret, is a psychoanalyst who has made a fortune with a best-selling book about compulsive behaviour. When a patient reports that his life is at risk because of a gambling debt, she visits the seedy eponymous bar in order to confront Mike, the man threatening him. Smitten by this seductive hustler and turned on by the exotic low-life milieu, she finds herself is sucked into a world of Chicago con-artists and into a plot whose multiple twists keep you guessing about who is the ultimate target of the ingenious scams.

In losing the one-track-mindedness of the original, this stage version forfeits much of its power. Premiered in a snappy, engagingly acted production by Lindsay Posner, Bean's version is highly skilled, improving on the cleverness of some of the scams and adroitly confining their execution to the House of Games bar, which therefore becomes, like one of those gulling joints in Ben Jonson, an unofficial theatre-within-a-theatre.

The gags are good, but this Mamet/Bean hybrid often seems to be at odds with itself. It's as though Bean is satirising the psychology of the movie when he has a trust-fund junkie patient pester Margaret with comically crude speculations about her sexual progress with Mike. And while Nancy Carroll and Michael Landes make a fetching couple, the ruthless logic whereby Mamet's Mike exploits their mutual attraction is violated here with the sentimental suggestion that genuine emotion may at one point have cracked his professional armour.

In the new wry coda, we discover that Margaret has abandoned academe and written a novel about her experiences. With the implication that art too is a con-game, her agent wants to know who is the book's "mark" or target victim. You could ask the same of this version of House of Games, which, for all its pleasures, gives neither Mamet buffs nor Bean fans the full deal.





To 6 November (020 7359 4404)

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