Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review: The Cryptogram at Donmar Warehouse 21 October 2006

Reviews (scroll for list) have been pretty darn fine this past week for this new production, with much praise heaped on Oliver Cooper-Smith, one of three boys playing the central role: arguably the most demanding part in this three-handed play. Of course, these reviews are based on the Press Night performance, so I do hope that amongst that adulation, fair appreciation is also given to the other two boys who take on the arduous and exhausting role of John, the child whose inabilty to sleep creates the heart of the play.

For the performance on Saturday, Adam Brown took this role and ably added his anxious, wide-eyed take to the character. With many long speeches and Mamet's usual elliptical, reiterative dialogue throughout to contend with, it takes supreme attention to manage to invest the part of John with the right proportions of childish frustration and growing - almost adult - comprehension at the destruction around him. That he does this deserves full credit that should not be subsumed by the Press's attention to the one performance they saw (if I could I would head back to see it again, not least to try and see each of the different young male lead performances).

The story itself it short, but by no means slight: as dense as any Mamet work is, it seems to skirt around itself whilst also managing to throw several knockout punches in its developing narrative. Essentially it is a tale set in 1959 of a mother (Donny - played by Kim Cattrell), her son John, and her 'friend' - I use the term loosely - Del (Douglas Henshall, more on whom later...). John cannot sleep. He is expecting to take a trip to 'the cabin' with his father Robert. To say the trip doesn't happen scarcely gets close to capturing how events progress.

I actually don't want to say too much about the narrative of the play, partly because of its brevity (just 3 acts across 65 uninterrupted minutes of performance), but also because the narrative deserves to be soaked in and considered rather than neatly encapsulated. I suspect summing it up both diminishes and complicates the narrative. But it probably helps to know that that mother's first key act is off-stage (the breaking of a teapot) and by the end of the play far more things - both physical and emotional - are broken in her life. Cattrell was astonishingly good. This probably won't come as a surprise to the more observant afficiandos of 'Sex and the City'. There, when allowed, the character of Samantha was always far more complex and conflicted than her media-portrayed sexpot summary allowed casual viewers to believe. Given the right parts, I think she will establish herself as admirably on the London stage as she has done elsewhere. Her gradual destruction, the collapse of her 50s housewife facade, was excellent.

I've already mentioned the strong performance of Adam Brown as John, a role that truly is central to this short play. So I guess I need to get to writing to about Douglas Henshall, who, let's face it was the key reason - the only reason - I dragged myself down to London. I would love to say that I am addicted to seeing plays, and that I go to the theatre often. But the truth is I don't, although I know I should, and it often takes the lure of someone I really enjoy seeing to get me there. I wish in some ways that wasn't true, but there it is. I went because I would - as Cloud ably teased me yesterday - pay to see Henshall read the phone book...

...cue drifting daydream into hearing his Scottish tones twirl a range of numbers and names...





...and I'm back.

That proviso made, what is really the point is that Henshall is undeniably a bloody fine actor. He always brings such conviction and passion to his performances that he cuts a mesmerising figure on the stage. Even here, where - by his own admission - Mamet's style demands that an actor has little "scope for interpretation", he creates an emotional intensity that draws you in. That his seemingly charming and affectionate character proves ultimately to be so duplicituous, even manipulative, consequently hits the audience even harder than it perhaps otherwise would do so. He is also exceptionally good at handling humour, although given the roles for which he has become best known for that's perhaps less surprising than it feels. Despite the eventual bleakness, the early scenes of The Cryptogram call for some deft and teasing interactions with John and Donny by Del and Henshall brings mischievous conviction to his performance of these. There's often been an undercurrent of wry wit to his chosen roles, and it's good to see that re-emerge here alongside the aching tragedy that he handles so beautifully in all his work.

Of course, Henshall is no stranger to Mamet's work, having drawn excellent notices for his performance of the role of Teach in American Buffalo back in 1997. But it was another five years after that role before he returned to the stage for the Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. It's pleasing that since he made that return, we've been able to see him on stage more regularly, especially as theatre is a medium that flatters his talents just as admirably as any other: and of course has the added bonus of allowing you to see him in the round as it were. And whilst I realise you may spot my bias, seriously, the guy works well in any medium. Thoroughly deserving of repeats, two personal favourites of mine have been his radio performances as David in The Long Farewell - a play that never fails to bring me to tears - and as Christopher Brookmyre's flawed hero Jack Parlabane in the hysterical Bampot Central. Sigh.

I'd urge you to see the production if you can, but given it's at the Donmar - a beautifully tiny theatre - getting tickets may prove tricky. Still, if you get the chance I would urge you to try. Josie Rourke's direction is wonderful and the intimacy of the theatre brilliantly captures the growing claustrophobia of the story. Three cheers too to the lighting crew, who do a great job of managing that intimacy. I was seated on the front row of the balcony and that gave a great view of proceedings, but you're going to get a good view anywhere in that environment. Although I would say that I intentionally avoided going for a downstairs seat on the ground of it proving too much of a temptation for my fast-beating heart... and Cloud's prods at my transfixion were bad enough anyway...

1 comment:

AnnaWaits said...

What an amazing review, makes me want to rush down to London immediately! Josie Rourke is a stunning director. Please don't do these reviews too often, though - you're showing me up ;)