Simpatico @ Old Red Lion Theatre, London

cast list
Phil Nichol, Gabriel Butler-Lewis, Sonya Cassidy, Edward Clayton, Trudi Jackson, Danielle King

directed by
Hannah Eidinow
Carter and Vinnie go way back.

They grew up together and, years earlier, were involved in a horse racing scam, the consequences of which cast a shadow over both their lives.

These two men were once friends but they have gone down different paths. Carter is successful, smartly suited and well-groomed; he’s a former alcoholic who has cleaned up his act and is clearly not short of cash.

The bearded, wild-eyed Vinnie on the other hand lives in a cramped, grotty flat and has a somewhat wavering grip on reality. He has fantasies in which he is a detective and has a gun and a shoe box full of filthy photos to prove it.
Set against a backdrop of the horse-racing business, Sam Shepard’s play was first staged at the Royal Court in 1995. It’s an intense piece that works reasonably well on the compact Old Red Lion stage. But though its atmosphere is appealingly thickened with menace, its plot is a tad too knotty. The details of what went down remain murky and it’s never really clear what exactly played out in the past, which one of them instigated it and why Vinnie has suddenly decided to do something about it. A degree of ambiguity is a welcome thing, but this stretches things rather too far. What we do know, or rather what Vinnie tells Carter, is that he has got himself in trouble with a woman, and following that, with the law, and needs help sorting this mess out. Carter, of course, can’t say no; he is ever aware that Vinnie could explode his comfortable life, if he put his mind to it, by exposing their past crimes.

Though it has its moments the play doesn’t really make its case for revival. It twists around, plays a few games, but doesn’t really take its audience anywhere worth going. The performances, however, pick it up a notch. Phil Nichol (an actor and comedian who picked up the if.comedy award at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe) is oddly appealing as Vinnie; there’s a trace of sadness buried under the matted hair and the grubby clothes. But the male characters are eclipsed by the two female leads. Trudi Jackson is superb as Cecilia, the woman Vinnie has set his sights on. While Carter dismisses her as a dim bulb, that’s just not the case, she’s simply a tourist in this corrupt, dirty world of theirs; she doesn’t belong. He tries to get her to do his bidding, to buy her services with a white Kentucky Derby dress, but toting around a purse full of money makes her quiver with nerves. She’s not cut out for such scheming; she dreams of a refined life.

Given less to do, Danielle King nonetheless still makes an impact as Rosie, with her wide mascara-smudged eyes and her peach stain robe, her head foggy with pills. This is the woman who left Vinnie for Carter and she seems like the wreck of a once vibrant soul, sullied by the past, sabotaged.

Director Hannah Eidnow (who last year directed a powerful production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at the Arcola) has a good feel for the material, and the play feels less than its hefty two hours forty running time. She successfully brings this world of theirs to life on the small stage, but despite the best efforts of both her and the cast, (and apologies but here comes the obligatory equine metaphor) Shepard’s play remains more mule than thoroughbred.

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