Lakeboat/Prairie du Chien, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Two rare David Mamets – his first play, Lakeboat, and a later radio piece, Prairie du Chien – form a well-matched double-bill at the new Arcola and fit well into the smaller studio, where they are handsomely cast and well directed by Abbey Wright.

It's a lovely coincidence that Mamet's first play, drawing on his vacation experience as a cook on a cargo ship on the Great Lakes, should echo the early sea plays of Eugene O'Neill, the father of modern American drama; and the callow surrogate, Dale, hears about pipe dreams, too, of old lags who've missed every boat except this one.

Something terrible happened to Dale's predecessor, and the same might happen to him, if he's not careful: he's slumming it from his East Coast university and gradually worms his way into conversations and confidences with the skill of a practised listener. Steven Webb carries this off without seeming too creepy, though he's less muscular, not to say less Jewish, than Mamet himself. Already Mamet is displaying that raucous, expletive-infected invective that is his trademark; it all goes with a tremendous swing.

Prairie du Chien employs six of the eight actors in Lakeboat and moves them from a steel loading container to a 1910 railcar travelling across Wisconsin. Two of them play cards, another tells a man about a murder in a burning barn, where a sheriff has been found with a ten-year-old girl...

It's a riveting 20 minutes (following the tense hour of Lakeboat), in which Mamet displays utter mastery of rhythmic, narrative control as the stories interweave, then overlap, and explode. Nigel Cooke and Ed Hughes are entangled in the story, while Rory Keenan and Nigel Whitmey deal in suspicion as well as gin rummy.

Mamet's all-male cast is well served by the female trio of director Wright, designer Helen Goddard and lighting designer Emma Chapman.

To 7 May (020 7503 1646)

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