As Rolls Royce productions go, they don’t get much better than this. Homegrown screen and stage star Damian Lewis returning the stage after a six-year absence, and for the first time since Homeland made him a mega mega international star (after seeing him in this and Band of Brothers, my nephews in Chicago simply refuse to believe Lewis isn’t American). Hollywood royalty, and Coen Brothers legend, John Goodman making his London stage debut. And bright young British thing Tom Sturridge to complete the trio. Plus, actor-turned Sheffield Crucible artistic director Daniel Evans, and Lewis’ Guildhall old drama school mate, making his West End directing debut.
Some credentials, you know what I’m sayin’ (in Mamet speak). And then, of course, there’s the play itself. David Mamet‘s 1975 three-hander about small-time crooks with disastrously mis-handling a coin heist (the American Buffalo of the title) is considered a modern classic. Adapted for the screen in 1996, it starred Dustin Hoffman as Teach, the part now taken by Lewis. It’s a part that’s also been tackled by the likes of Robert Duvall, Al Pacino and, most recently in London, William H Macy. The last, another Coen veteran and frequent Mamet collaborator, in fact starred as Bobby in the world premiere of American Buffalo and, 25 years later, took on Teach in an Atlantic Theatre Company co-production that opened at the Donmar Warehouse before transferring to New York.
I caught that production, and as I watched last night at Wyndham’s, it came back to me in flashes. Macy is an incredible character actor who seems to have the label of ‘one of of life’s losers’ affixed to his forehead. Lewis is much more the leading man material and, after the shock of his 1970s makeover, you’re briefly taken in my his swagger. The self-delusion becomes more gradually apparent as you try to follow Teach’s loopy, “know-it-all who knows nothing” logic.
It’s a high-energy performance that’s beautifully balanced out by John Goodman‘s oh-so natural performance as Donny, who becomes increasingly perplexed and uneasy as the heist goes wrong and he doubts his touching, fatherly relationship with Tom Sturridge’s twitchily feral junkie Bobbie.
And then there’s the REAL star of the show: Paul Wills‘ magnificent, towering junk-shop set, whose walls of bric-a-brac come tumbling down around Lewis in a ferocious denouement. Above the shop hangs a tangled web of chains and more junk, a sort of mobile of life’s detritus, ever dangling above these lowly characters’ heads.