Swimming with Sharks, Vaudeville, London<br/>Glengarry Glen Ross, Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue, London <br/>War Horse, NT Olivier, London

Kate Bassett
Sunday 21 October 2007 00:00
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Movie moguls are just so beastly. In the West End's new stage adaptation of George Huang's darkening Hollywood satire Swimming with Sharks, Christian Slater's Buddy Ackerman is a big fish. We're told he has produced a stack of blood- drenched macho blockbusters. Now, he is swaggering around his sheet-glass designer office and verbally slapping down his new assistant, Matt Smith's Guy – a naively eager cinephile and wannabe screenwriter.

On top of this, Buddy treats all women as sexual fodder, including Dawn, a rising producer determined to make a worthy and uncompromised political film. Buddy scoffs, then realises that he could, for personal gain, exploit Guy in order to snatch and maul her project. In short, he's a voracious amoral monster.

But, frankly, this comes as no surprise. In Wilson Milam's mostly slick but occasionally slack production, the film industry having fangs inspires little more than a yawn of recognition. With Slater giving a typical, brazenly bullish performance, the cut-throat boss becomes merely a ghastly cliché. Though you can sense autobiographical suffering in the depiction of Guy, Huang hammers you over the head with his condemnation of Buddy.

When video nasty-style retributions come into the equation, the plot developments feel forced as well as ethically dubious – wallowing in violence while condemning it. I could also have done without the obtrusive satirical stabs at current celebs in Michael Lesslie's update of the original 1990s film script.

Slater does, to give him his due, have charisma. Helen Baxendale holds her own as the hard-nosed yet soft-centred Dawn, and Smith's nerdy gestures are acutely observed – nervously tapping the bottom of his beer bottle on a first date. His is a name to watch even if Guy's disillusionment could be brought into still sharper focus.

James Macdonald's excellent West End revival of Glengarry Glen Ross deftly creates a sense of almost cinematic close-up. Shrinking the proscenium arch to a narrow slit, designer Anthony Ward shunts a claustrophobic Chicago diner – with stale brown plastic seats – right up under the audience's noses. You can almost smell the grease and sweat as Jonathan Pryce's rumpled Shelly – a covertly desperate ageing salesman – tries to talk his mean young manager, Peter McDonald's John, into slipping him backhanders.

It's cat-and-mouse and dog-eat-dog in the dodgy real estate business of David Mamet's classic from 1983 where caustic snapshots of wheeler-dealing lead to a showdown with twists.

Once or twice maybe a shifty twitching finger looks too magnified, and a few of Mamet's fractured sentences are allowed to sound more poetic than naturalistic. The energy dips with Paul Freeman's slow-paced George – the potential fall guy in the robbery planned by Matthew Marsh's Dave. But the mix of anxiety and aggressive manoeuvres is potent. Aidan Gillen has febrile energy as the savagely competitive Richard, and McDonald is chillingly assured as John – replacing Anthony Flanagan who quit the production days before press night. Recommended.

Finally, behaving like an animal proves a whole lot more admirable in War Horse. This is the NT's new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novella for young adolescents which tells the story of a Devonshire farm horse who's sold to the British cavalry but survives the terrors of the First World War with courage and stamina. He is Morpurgo's war hero and the show's life-size steeds – designed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company – are absolutely magnificent.

Towering beasts constructed from skeletal frames of curved wood and delicate gauze, pictured left, look like some mechanical wonder conceived by Leonardo da Vinci. Their haunches, fetlocks and hooves, articulated with hinges and cogs, look as intricate as the inner workings of a clock. Operated with rods and threads, they are visibly manned from inside by two gaitered puppeteers, with a third handling the head like a stable boy. Simultaneously, these creatures seem to have a miraculous life of their own. Their leather ears twitch; their tails swish with a slow-flexing muscularity and they appear to breath as they nuzzle, shy and buck. The suggestion of hefty strength is astonishing, combined with a gossamer-thin ghostliness which – when silhouetted – serves as a grim memento mori on the bare, charred battlefield.

However, it must be said that other aspects of this ambitious production – co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris – are not so amazing. I didn't massively object to the numerous alterations made to he original story, which is after all an unfeasible monologue by the titular quadruped. But Nick Stafford's adaptation is nothing to write home about. Several fine actors, including the thoroughbred Angus Wright playing a gentle German soldier, struggle with lame and stilted speeches. As for the set, Rae Smith's dark scribbled sketches of the Western Front, projected on a ragged finger of cloud, are moodily evocative. They do not need clumsy video animations laid on top.

Similarly, John Tams's ballads are sung with beautiful simplicity by Tim Van Eyken, but the effect is spoilt by a more swelling, sentimental score by Adrian Sutton (with a touch of ye olde Hovis ad). So, while teamwork, pulling together and moments of harmony are the moving recurrent themes in Morpurgo's tale, those principles don't fully extend to this multimedia experiment. For all that, it's a touching and extraordinary evening.

k.bassett@independent.co.u

Click here for Glengarry Glen Ross website

Click here for War Horse website

'Swimming with Sharks' (0870 060 6632) to 19 Jan; 'Glengarry Glen Ross' (0870 040 0046) to 12 Jan; 'War Horse' (020 7452 3000) to 12 Jan

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