Review: Black to the future

Theatre: Lakeboat Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith Richard III The Pleasance, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In retrospect it sounded like a treat only hardened Mamet-fanciers would appreciate, but Lakeboat, one of this dramatists earliest pieces - now receiving it's British premier from Pierman Productions - is a major event, period. It's one of the funniest, gutsiest, saddest, subtlest, and most gratefully rhythmic works ever written by Chicago's number one playwright. And Aaron Mullen's production gave it an expertly nuanced knockout immediacy.

We are smack in the Mamet world of male bonding, of men without women. The air is thick with macho and melancholy, cigar smoke and stale testosterone. Only here that world is literally afloat. Conjuring up memories of Twain, Conrad and the Eugene O'Neill of The Hairy Ape, the show presents an all male society on the small intense planet of a boat, a cargo freighter crossing the Great Lakes, from East Chicago to Duluth.

What is brilliant, though, about Lakeboat is the off-hand unsure attractiveness of any symbolic significance or writer-passage agenda. Recently, works like Oleanna and The Cryptogram seem programmatic or too cerebrally conceived by comparison with the dazzlingly influenced source of this latest, all be it very belated, premier. True, Mamet revived the 1970 script for productions in 1981 and 1982 but it still suggests that back-to-the-future might be the best way forward for him.

On Melanie Allen's strong two-tier set of girders, scaffolding and a scrim-like bridge, the play proceeds as a series of snap shots and blackguard sketches.

The advent of a doe-eyed undergraduate (excellent Joe May) as the boats cook triggers riffs of image bolstering self-disclosure from the others. These include an oil-stained would-be stud (a terrific performance from Simon Harris) who stares into internal emptiness when not blusteringly reducing life to the simplicities of racetrack or rape fantasies, and Jim Dunk's wonderfully stock, stumpy, kind and oddly gentile Joe, who once had dreams of being a ballet dancer. When struggling to keep their end up, Mamet's characters can sound like Damion Runyon's New Yorker's in Guys and Dolls: there's a similar rhetorical mix of inarticulacy and a curios comic formality: "I want to become one with the ages of men and women before me down into eternity and go in the muck from whence we sprung - you know what I mean?"

Over at the Pleasance, there's a less happy look at a heavily male society in Guy Retallack's staging of Richard III. It transplants Shakespeare tragedy to an East End pub, circa 1960, and diminishes the grand endangering dimension of the original by presenting it as the world of the Krays.

The production will appeal to The Bill-watching, This Life generation, and there are some undeniably neat touches. Bow-tied velvet-collared and trailing his bit of wrath, Michael Matuf's Buckingham translates well as the kind of Boothby/Driberg figure who gets off on fraternising with gangland low life. As Richard, Eddie Marshan artfully uses his innocent runt-of-the litter look and his "straight up guv" style of delivery in a way that sometimes heightens the malign comedy of this sadistic ironist.

But too much has been flattened out. The famous line dropped here, "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" would have to be changed to "Horse and Jockey, the Horse and Jockey! This pub for the Horse and Jockey!" to indicate the extent which a great tragedy finds itself scaled down.

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