True West at the Vaudeville Theatre review ****

True West

Vaudeville Theatre, 10th January 2019

The Tourist’s first viewing of a Sam Shepherd play. A couple of near misses, but this, with Matthew Dunster directing and Johnny Flynn as one of the two brothers was not to be missed. I was less sure about the acting merits of Kit Harington having actively avoided that Game of Thrones and not having seen any of his film work. The only exposure the SO and I have had, (quite literally it turned out with his botty on show), was his Faustus in the lamentable Jamie Lloyd outing a couple of years ago. (BTW Mr Lloyd may not have convinced us in Marlowe but in Pinter, as he is now proving, he is the bee’s knees).

Well as it turns out Mr Harington puts in a more than creditable stint as Austin, the screenwriter younger brother to Johnny Flynn’s maverick petty thief Lee. Or at least we should assume they are brothers. Sam Shepherd’s near-naturalistic text and setting, (apparently he was a right one for stage directions), have led many to conclude that what we are seeing is two sides of Austin’s character which emerge as he is holed up in central California in Mum’s holiday retreat.

As I had anticipated Johnny Flynn, on whom I have a small crush, was magnificent. From Jerusalem, through Twelfth Night, Hangmen, and now this on stage, Lovesick, Genius, his Dobbin in Vanity Fair and his scene stealing Felix in Les Miserables on BBC right now, and then his utterly brilliant Pascal, alongside the equally wonderful Jessie Buckley, (who I also have a similarly sized crush on), everything he does is, well, genius. Can’t vouch for his music, other than the Detectorists score and his contribution in this play, but another sign of his all-round wonderfulness. He has charisma, plainly, but he is able to mould that personality and presence, through speech, expression and movement, to the character he is playing.

Lee is volatile and unpredictable, a restless wanderer, the embodiment of the True West of America, a chancer, but enough of an opportunist to seize his opportunity when Donald Sage Mackay’s film producer, Saul, visits to check on Austin’s progress. Whilst I was a little unconvinced by this plot shift that leads to the inversion of Lee and Austin’s relationship, Austin now getting in the hair of Lee as he tries, hopelessly, to write his own script, as I was by the brawl that follows the arrival of their exasperated Mom, (Madeleine Potter in an underwritten hospital pass of a role), there was plenty in the dialogue and semiotics to keep me gainfully entertained.

Sam Shepherd’s key concerns, the dysfunctionality of family as a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of American society, are common to most of his mature plays. He started off in a more absurdist, comic vein and was a pivotal figure in all that late Sixties, psychedelic, experimental New York artistic scene. However, it is his quintet of plays. created in a decade span from the mid 1970’s, which define his writing legacy. True West (1980), alongside, Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1979) make up the Family Trilogy, which was followed by Fool For Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985). These are the plays that generally get revived, (there are a lot more besides), and these are the plays I will now need to hunt out to complete my education. I can see that, without the right cast and direction, they might have the capacity for tedium, fortunately not the case here.

The way Austin initially seeks to calm his elder sibling, (they haven’t seen each other for 5 years), to forestall any conflict, eventually handing over the keys to his car. The guilt Austin feels about their alcoholic father. The golfing one-upmanship. Austin’s dismissal of Lee’s hackneyed plot for his film idea. The admissions of jealously of each other’s lives. Conformity and financial success vs rebellion, freedom and moral ambiguity. Head vs gut. The inversions as Lee calms Austin after Saul drops his script, Lee begging the drunken Austin to let him concentrate. Not the stuff of every brother relationship but enough for anyone similarly blessed, (hello little Bruv), to recognise. I can certainly see why some might want to go beyond the straightforward reading of the play, especially as things get out of control towards the end, and the signifiers of the “vanishing West” pile up, but I was happy enough sticking with the obvious.

If I am scrupulously honest the play worked best when Messrs Flynn and Harrington were bad boys, rather than when they tamed their instincts, and I got a bit peeved by the stilted proceedings later on, which come close to questioning the worth of all that has preceded. Jon Bausor’s set and Joshua Carr’s lighting were effective but a little compromised by the Vaudeville’s proscenium and architecture. All in all though, and if you like either, or better still both, of these lads, well worth the trip.

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