The West End is awash with plays about plays. Peter Hall’s production of The Dresser opened to good reviews at the Duke of York’s and Corin Redgrave’s RSC’s production of Tynan, his one man tour through the diaries of the famous theatre critic, is nearing the end of its six week run at the Arts. The current crop of musicals are certainly not immune either; both the The Producers and Acorn Antiques are all about the business of putting on a show.
Lindsay Posner’s third London staging of a David Mamet play in as many years is in a similar vein, infused with a love of the stage. Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson – yes, Pacey from Dawson’s Creek – play a pair of jobbing actors, one an old hand, the other just starting out. Performing a season in rep together, they star in a series dodgy plays. Much of the humour comes from these stodgy, inept productions: a fraught medical drama, a Deep South saga. These are easy targets though, rather insubstantial spoofs; the play lacks Mamet’s usual acidity.
Robert, the older of the pair, is idealistic, vain and overly fond of the sound of his, admittedly sonorous, voice. He flits between backstage bitchery and grandly dolling out advice to his young colleague John. The best exchanges occur backstage, in the cramped dressing room the two men share, as a professional rivalry gradually overshadows their friendship. As Robert, Patrick Stewart has all the presence you’d expect, injecting the requisite pathos into the aging thesp. Whatever talent he had is now fading yet his passion for the stage remains true. This is really Stewart’s show; as John, Joshua Jackson has little to do except listen and grunt in, often bewildered, agreement, however when he gets the odd good line he certainly knows what to do with it.
For a Mamet veteran Posner’s direction is patchy. When ‘on stage’ the actors aim their performances out into the darkness, their backs to the audience. It’s a clever reversal, let down by other aspects of the staging. Abrupt dips in lighting and an over-elaborate backstage set do little to smooth out what is already a rather bitty production. A series of rather brief scenes linked loosely together, the pacing of the piece is flawed; and the rattling rhythms of Mamet’s language get lost in the cavernous Apollo auditorium.
The space seems far too big for what is a somewhat slight two-hander, a minor Mamet, running for just an hour and half without an interval. On a smaller stage the intimacy, and growing poignancy, of the two men’s relationship may have had a greater impact. The performances hold the thing together but you feel there should be more to it. As it is, A Life In The Theatre is Mamet at his most laid back, lacking his usual savagery – it’s an odd choice for a major West End venue. But though he mocks the medium, his genuine affection for the world he portrays is clear.