Vaudeville Theatre, London – until 23 February 2018
Sibling rivalry and dysfunctional families are at the heart of Sam Shepard’s True West, a black comedy that has emerged from an initial drubbing Stateside with a revival in the West End.
It has two bankable stars in Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington and actor/singer Johnny Flynn who starred in director Matthew Dunster’s previous West End hit, Martin McDonagh’s Hangman. But there’s something not quite right about this show.
Dunster has traded in Shepard’s trademark bleak, poetic, surrealist landscape for an obvious, outright, physical comedy that is devoid of any finesse or menace. In one scene Harington is careering around the stage doing a terrible impression of a drunk and, in another, a chaotic Flynn is taking a five iron to a typewriter (don’t ask).
One of the biggest gags, which involves stolen toasters, is entirely lost on three-quarters of the audience sitting in the stalls who can’t see them at all. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its merits.
The tension between warring brothers, Austin and Lee, never falters and the audience is kept on tenterhooks, right until the end, over whether their animosity and jealousy towards each other will spill over into violence.
Shepard, one of the most gifted of American playwrights and actors, was a fan of Beckett and there’s an absurdist element to True West hiding in there somewhere underneath the heavy-handed slapstick.
We never get to experience True West – the images we conjure up from old John Wayne, Glenn Ford and Clint Eastwood movies.
Cowboys, rodeos, with heroes called Butch, Chuck, Curly and Deadwood Dick, don’t find it onto the pages of Shepard’s work.
They’re distant memories in this challenging play.
But the simpler, harder, way of life they endured is still an essential part of every American’s dream of escaping the rat-race just like the right to bear arms.
It’s the 1980s, not the most fashionable of eras and certainly not for Kit Harington.
He is almost unrecognisable with a handlebar moustache and slicked back hair, spending most of the production in unflattering, skimpy shorts, Walmart shirts and terrible glasses.
He’s a scriptwriter, struggling to finish a love story that a studio is interested in developing.
Austin is house-sitting while his mother is on holiday. He turns out the lights and types by candlelight to get into the mood.
But he is disturbed by the sudden arrival of his estranged brother, Lee. They haven’t seen each other for five years yet he’s just dropped by. What are the odds, eh?
Austin doesn’t need the distraction. He’s up against a deadline especially with producer, Saul Kimmer, about to drop around to discuss money.
It’s difficult to believe the two brothers are related. Austin, we learn, was Ivy League educated and a successful writer with a wife and kids.
How this was financially possible, when his parents were dirt poor and his dad an alcoholic, was the first of many questions I asked myself while watching the production.
His older brother Lee is barely literate. He’s a drifter and small time burglar, a no-hoper with little expectation from life.
Yet, amazingly, this free spirit, who has spent enforced time communing with nature in the Mojave Desert due to homelessness and poverty, is a champion golfer. Where he learned god only knows – another poser.
He also has a remarkable ability to bully and cajole anyone into doing what he wants simply by wearing them down.
Saul is browbeaten into listening to Lee’s pitch for a modern western film and is persuaded to ditch Austin’s script and go with Lee’s idea – if Austin writes it.
As the plot progresses the two brothers, who both secretly yearn for the other’s lifestyle, swap characters.
Lee struggles to write while Austin goes completely off the rails. You just know that it will all end badly for someone.
The pair shout most of their dialogue, even though they are only a few feet apart, which robs it of any nuance or threat, and there is little chemistry between them.
But a lot of the fault lies with the playwright. How could these two men be from the same family?
How did they grow up to lead such different lives? Why have they been estranged? Why did Lee pitch up at his mom’s house at the very moment his younger brother was there?
Sadly, we’ll never know the answers.
True West is funny in places, obscure in others and occasionally baffling, but it does hold your attention.
Dunster does a good job of creating the stifling heat of California with a background of infuriating crickets, the occasional howl of a coyote, warm lighting and sweat-stained clothing.
And Jon Bausor’s evocative, slightly off-kilter, tricksy, set does the rest.
Donald Sage Mackay and Madeleine Potter, as Saul and Mom, might as well not be there and play little part in what is essentially a two-hander.
As an homage to the great Shepard, who died in July, last year, it is disappointing, overacted and lacking bite, but it is entertaining nonetheless.
True West runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until February 23.
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