Speed-the-Plow

by David Mamet

Directed by Roger Beaumont

8th - 12th June, 2004

The Tower Theatre performing at Theatro Technis, Camden

 

Cast List

Bobby Gould : Martin South
Charlie Fox : Ralph Ward
Karen : Kassie Goodman

 

Production Team

Director : Roger Beaumont
Set Design : Roger Beaumont
Lighting Design : Robert Irvine
Costume Design : Jill Batty
Sound Design : Roger Beaumont

Stage Manager : Gail Willis
ASMs : Sheila Burbidge, Michael Allaway
Lighting operator : Nathalie Lake
Sound operators : Zizi Sulkin, Lily Ann Green
Wardrobe : Jill Batty



Review by Richard Pedersen

Richard is the Tower's Fire and Safety Officer, who most recently appeared in Antony and Cleopatra.


Watching a David Mamet play always leaves me feeling a bit grubby and with a rather nasty taste in my mouth. It was the same when I performed in his play Glengarry Glen Ross. I admire utterly Mamet's skill with language and the way that his dialogue jumps off the page - I just wish I could like his characters and subject matter a bit more. Mamet wrote Speed-the-Plow in the late-eighties, and although it has been frequently revived since, both in the USA and London, it does have a distinct whiff of Reagan and Thatcher about it. It's never been filmed, however, which given the Hollywood setting, and the fact that Mamet has a parallel career as a movie scriptwriter, is just a little ironic.

The title? Well, to quote the author describing a hunting trip to Texas - "We were at a forge, watching a friend of mine pound out the steel for a hunting knife, and I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs: 'Industry produceth wealth, God speed the plow'. This, I knew was a play about work and about the end of the world, so 'Speed-the-Plow' was perfect, because, not only did it mean work, it also suggested having to plow under and start over again". So now you know.

But back to basics - Roger Beaumont directed and designed the Tower's production of this play at Theatro Technis with a three-handed cast made up of two stalwarts, Martin South and Ralph Ward, and one new member, Kassie Goodman. The action was played continuously and the whole thing was over in an hour and a half. I just wish I could have enjoyed it more. This is when the reviewer's job becomes really tough. What was it that didn't work? Was it the script, was it the direction, was it the performances or was it me? Probably an amalgam of the whole lot. Basically, I couldn't believe in the characters, the setting or the plot line, so the whole premise of what makes drama started to become unstuck. I would never, however, presume to criticise actors or directors who do what I probably could not, so I'm in a bit of a hole here.

Martin South is a highly competent actor but I don't believe he really got under the skin of Bobby Gould. Maybe he didn't realise that the character, like Mamet himself, is Jewish? Bobby Gould had already featured in an earlier Mamet play, and the playwright decided that there was more mileage in him. Hence his sudden promotion to film studio production with an enormous new desk, decorating materials all over the floor, and a dizzy temporary secretary. I think the actor could maybe have worked a little harder on his Californian accent, and on his suntan, to help me believe more that he was a hard-bitten movie mogul and not the Chairman of the Tower guarantors. Ralph Ward probably came closer to the nub of the character of Charlie Fox, always the number 2 to the thrusting Gould. His dowdy suit suggested someone on the lower rung of the ladder, but he should have worn a tie. However, this is Bobbie Gould's play and Ralph Ward could only act as a foil to his more successful buddy. The scenes between the two consist of an elaborate series of verbal gymnastics, which both actors coped with competently. Unfortunately, impressive as these verbal pyrotechnics are, they can, and did, leave the audience struggling to catch up. I tried to follow the endless cut and thrust of the dialogue as best I could but there were times when I left off exhausted.

Kassie Goodman made a highly competent Tower debut as the temp Karen who takes forever to make two cups of coffee, but then manages to coerce Gould into dropping the Douggie Brown prison movie (for Douggie Brown read Stephen Segal, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme etc) in favour of an arty-farty piece of East Coast gloom, about the end of the world caused by overuse of microwave ovens. The part was originally played by Madonna, whose presence on the Broadway stage, in what is effectively a minor role, guaranteed sell out performances. Karen was no material girl, however, nevertheless the reasons why she agreed to sleep with Gould in order for him to endorse production of The Bridge were quite beyond me. I expected a clever twist that just wasn't there.

I hadn't realised it at the time, but The Bridge (end of the world caused by radiation) was a real book, written by Mamet himself in 1983 and which was turned down by Hollywood, exactly at the same time as Bobbie Gould made his first stage appearance in The Disappearance of the Jews. Life meets art in quite a scary way. I was impressed by the stage flooring - parquet, whatever next ? However, the cardboard boxes and paint pots were an unnecessary distraction. They were not important to the plot and just served to make the place look untidy. The massive desk looked tremendous, but then the actors had to act around it, which severely limited their options. The climactic fight scene between Gould and Fox was therefore concealed behind desk and chair and lost much of its potential impact.

With only one chair in the office, only Gould could sit down, which again limited the possibilities of changing the stage picture. The backdrop suggested Mondrian; unfortunately it did not particularly suggest a movie tycoon's office in Hollywood. The pre-show projections of the Hollywood sign and a selection of cheesy stars was a clever stroke, which skilfully suggested location and theme. The scene change between office and Gould's house was smartly executed by Gail Willis and her backstage crew, and cleverly managed without recourse to the two back corridor doors. Robert Irvine's lighting was deliberately harsh, reflecting the California sunlight.

Honestly, I wanted to like this production and I feel sad that I didn't. I could see the effort that had gone into the performances and know, myself, how satisfying it is to get underneath a Mamet text. But I still don't believe he writes with the audience sufficiently in mind. I regret to say that I left the theatre feeling a bit short-changed.