Theatre: Unperformed, unknown and unbelievably good

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The Independent Culture
AN UNKNOWN theatre company presents the UK premiere of something the 23-year-old David Mamet wrote in 1970. Big deal, I thought, if it was any good we'd have seen it before. Well, if Lakeboat was really Mamet's latest - which for us in one way it is - this debut by a massively talented young writer would be on the shortlist for best new play.

Mamet sets Lakeboat on a steamer crossing the Great Lakes from East Chicago to Duluth. In a series of gloriously emphatic, rhythmically charged exchanges we move - in Melanie Allen's robust set of scaffolding, steps and girders - between bridge, deck, galley and engine room. Facing the immensity of the dark waters at night, and prompted by the arrival of a college boy as a cook, the seamen are drawn to disclosure. They are talkative and inarticulate. The rebarbative mix of advice, abuse and homespun philosophy takes on sex, drink, wives, racing, dreams and whatever happened to a guy called Guigliani.

Aaron Mullen's excellent cast look as if they have actually been on a boat: from Jim Dunk's brawnily tender Joe, who once wanted to be a ballet dancer, to Jon Welch's oil-stained Lothario Fred, who reckons women like to be treated like shit. In the autobiographical role of the student Dale, Joe May has the light watchfulness of the late Richard Beckinsale. He's going on to study Eng. Lit. "That's a tough racket," says Joe, a seaman of 33 years. Unhampered by any overt moral or political purpose, this energetic, candid, funny and observant piece smacks of life in the raw.

Frederick Knott wrote three hits - Dial M for Murder, Write Me A Murder and Wait Until Dark, the last of which opened on Broadway in 1966. Next month it returns with Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei. By coincidence a British production, directed by Giles Croft, opens in Watford. So this month we get to see what's in it for the director of Pulp Fiction.

And it's pulp theatre, of course. Three men visit a woman in her basement flat in Notting Hill Gate to find where her husband has hidden a doll with a stash of drugs. The woman is an attractive blonde (needless to say) and the twist is she's blind. Wait Until Dark combines menacing Pinter types with Hitchcock's taste for endangering his heroines. The arch crook Harry Roat - the Tarantino role - gets to appear in three guises. When he confronts Suzy the climax is suitably sadistic.

Wait Until Dark's appeal isn't plot. Knott could have skipped some of the crossword-puzzle detail. The best effects are non-verbal. There's the lighting: the glow of a match in the dark, the crack of light under the door, the figure silhouetted in the doorway. There's the sounds: the phone; the doorbell, the footsteps on the staircase, the tapping on the pipe that leads upstairs. And there's the off-stage life: peering through blinds at a vehicle outside or at the telephone kiosk down the road. It's a simple theatrical pleasure Knott provides. He makes our minds race. Given the choice, I'd rather see Tarantino direct this exercise in spookiness than appear in it. The best lines are in the stage directions.

In Blue Window, a short comedy by New York playwright Craig Lucas, who devised Marry Me A Little with Stephen Sondheim, the designer Polly Meynell deftly arranges five apartments on a single pub stage using red, orange, blue, green and yellow boxes. This is cramped accommodation even by New York standards. The characters are a Manhattanish bunch - family therapist, novelist, sky-diver, studio musician and so on - who fight off the Sunday night blues with a brittle, self- conscious party. When they return home they analyse what happened. Only the sky-diver stays behind with the hostess, and the play abruptly shifts gear.

Director Joe Harmston skilfully orchestrates a proficient cast in this technically showy piece. The message about loneliness and communication is less adroit. One character wishes people had a little window right in front like a TV screen where you could see "what they're thinking and feeling". No thank you, we'd look like Teletubbies.

'Lakeboat': Lyric Studio, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 28 Feb; 'Wait Until Dark': Palace Watford (01923 225 671), to 21 Feb; 'Blue Window': Old Red Lion, EC1 (0171 837 7816), to 28 Feb.