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A CurtainUp London London Review
American Buffalo

". . . But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll I ever ate with them into ground glass . . . this hurts me Don." — Teach
American Buffalo
John Goodman as Don, Tom Sturridge as Bobby and Damian Lewis as Teach (Photo: Johan Persson)
David Mamet's plays are not the ideal introductions to theatre with their difficult, dense language and semi-criminal themes which Mamet himself has described as "the American Dream gone bad". But when you produce a play with movie actor John Goodman on stage in London for the first time, and with Damian Lewis, recent star of Homeland and Henry VIII in the televised Wolf Hall, your main audience may be there to see these actors, rather than a play.

Mamet's characters are often inarticulate but the repetition forms a pattern, a kind of rhythmic speech with short, stabbing sentences and expletives aplenty. The 1975 American Buffalo is a three hander of dependency and friendship versus business, betrayal and making money.

Set in Chicago, in Paul Wills' magnificent set of a stuffed, second hand junk shop. Bicycles, tricycles, prams, scooters, chairs and tables are suspended from the ceiling. The three characters dream of getting rich quick through a coin collection containing the valuable American Buffalo nickel.

John Goodman is Don, the shop's owner. The opening scene sees Don's fatherly advice to Bobby, (Tom Sturridge), the youngest man. This vulnerable, shaven headed boy who may be recovering from drug addiction. "Never skip breakfast, Bob!" commands Don in a booming voice as he asks Bob to fetch him a coffee.

Enter Teach (Damian Lewis), and what an entrance! A red Zapata moustache, large sideboards and a flared trousered, purple-brown suit make it visually as well as a vocally emphatic. With a North West nasal twang, and every other word a profanity, Lewis' performance is noisy as opposed to Don's quieter presence. Teach's restricted codified language spells out all brawn and no brains to us, as he describes his feeling about two girls he plays poker with, using the sophisticated metaphor of the betrayal as "sweet rolls" turning to "ground glass" but then saying, "The only way to teach these people is to kill them."

There is much dark humour in this play which the cast exploit with impeccable timing. On press night I was sitting just behind the director Daniel Evans and could see him enjoying every humorous moment, every joke, every well delivered line as much as I was. Evans is a director to watch although as the Artistic Director at the Crucible and Lyceum in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, we sadly don't always see his work in London.

Evans gets three contrasting performances from his actors. The solidity of Don, yet he is swayed by Teach's suspicions and opinions. Teach's badgering of his points, undermining any trust Don feels towards Bobby. So Teach is edgy and controlling whereas Tom Sturridge's Bobby seems to still be on drugs as he asks Don for money. It is as though John Goodman and Damian Lewis have trained in two different styles of acting but the tension between these styles, adds to the undercurrent of Mamet's play.

We love Don, feel sorry for Bobby and are nervous around Teach; so much bravado, so much bullshit. As Teach spots the police cars circling he leaps to the door to watch and we feel his relief as they turn the corner. We are immersed in this strange, seedy and dangerous world where no-one lives the dream.

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American Buffalo
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Daniel Evans

Starring: John Goodman, Tom Sturridge, Damian Lewis
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running time: Two hours 05 minutes with an interval
Box Office 0844 482 5120
Booking to 27th June 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th April 2015 performance at Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA (Tube: Leicester Square)
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