As usual with Mamet, the subject is deception and betrayal, though instead of involving scams and conmen the focus here is on family life where the main victim is a 10-year-old boy, so the play is also about the end of innocence.
In a middle-class household in Chicago in 1959, John can’t or won’t go to sleep despite the efforts of his mother Donny and gay family friend Del – is it because he is over-excited as the next day he is due to go on a fishing holiday with his father Robert, or is his anxiety more deep rooted? His perpetual questions and need for reassurance suggest the latter, as do the disturbing voices and visions he says he hears and sees when he goes to bed.
When a letter is found from Robert indicating he is never coming home again, it would appear that John’s fears have been premonitory, while Donny has to confront her husband’s treachery and Del’s complicity. Nothing or no one, it seems, can be relied upon in this uncertain world where truth is only the first casualty.
It takes a while for the play to get going, with Mamet’s rhythmic, repetitive dialogue coming close to self-parody in its irritatingly mannered way as is the case in some of the later plays of a writer who’s had a big influence on him, Harold Pinter. But, as always, his characters use language to try and conceal their real feelings, rather than express them, and once we read the subtext and delve beneath their defences, the raw emotion emerges.
As well as showing the devastating impact that parents’ selfish behaviour can have on children, Mamet demonstrates how memories and even objects can take on a new meaning in people’s lives according to the subjective emotional state of those concerned. In particular, the changing significance of a parachute knife is exploited to brilliant effect and at the end we are left wondering if it will be used to cut the cords free or for more destructive purposes.
Another way to decode the play is to see it in autobiographical terms: it cannot be a coincidence that Mamet himself was a boy growing up in 50s Chicago. And his memoir ‘The Rake’, which came out in the same year as the play, details the damaging effects of the break-up of his parents’ marriage on he and his sister.
Josie Rourke’s tightly controlled production allows the tension to build slowly, with a vague sense of unease eventually giving way to devastating emotional fireworks.
Kim Cattrall gives a beautifully modulated performance as Donny, as we see her change from well-heeled elegance to vindictive bitterness as she unleashes her anger not just on her friend but her son.
Douglas Henshall also makes a subtly shifting Del, at first seeming a staunchly sympathetic confidant but ultimately emerging as a duplicitous creep who puts his own need for a surrogate family above the feelings of anyone else.
Oliver Coopersmith (one of three boys alternating in the part of John) gives a touching portrait of a disturbed child and his slow walk up the interminable staircase to confront his bedroom nightmares is an image that will linger long in the mind.