Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Telegraph review
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Spellbinding tale of tempting temp

Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, reviews Peter Gill's production of David Mamet's Speed-the-plow, 17 March 2000

Speed-the-Plow — New Ambassadors JUST occasionally I have my doubts about David Mamet, Yes, his elliptical, foul-mouthed dialogue is both mesmerising and hilarious; yes, he's superb at charting the tensions in relationships, the endless jockeying for power and control.

There is, however, a worrying streak of pretentiousness in Mamet's make-up — just try reading his novels — and his plays sometimes seem to be freighted with more symbolic significance than they can support.

The fascinating thing about Speed-the-Plow — first seen in New York in 1988, and most famous then because it starred Madonna, who received some terrible notices — is that it finds the two sides of Mamet's nature slugging it out.

In the red corner, there's macho Dave, offering a spunky satire of Hollywood values and dog-eat-dog ambition. In the blue corner, there is sensitive David, who clearly has a certain sneaking admiration for a portentously pseudy book that is constantly mocked in the course of the play. When a writer is in dispute with himself, you often get exciting work and so it proves here.

Bobby Gould (Mark Strong) and Charlie Fox (the playwright Patrick Marber, making a tremendous debut as a straight actor) are old buddies in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, but one of Mamet's constant themes is that you can never be quite sure who your friends are.

At the start of the show, Gould has just been appointed as a studio big shot; Fox believes he has the key to both their fortunes, with the script for a prison buddy movie in which a Clint Eastwood — like star has agreed to appear.

The power games that go on between these two are superbly charted, but what brings the play to boiling point is the arrival of the temporary secretary, Karen (Kimberly Williams).

At first, she just seems like a comic incompetent. But when Gould asks her to give the pretentious novel — a spiritual account of impending apocalypse — a courtesy read as a prelude to getting her into bed, she manages to convince him that idealism and art might still be possible in the tarnished world of Tinseltown.

It would be unfair to give too much away, but after the slow burn of the first two acts, the play finally explodes into terrific physical and verbal violence.

Mamet has always been the master of the scam and the disguised intention, and the relationships between his three characters shift to wonderfully compelling effect. You're not sure to the very end who will turn out the victor and who the victim.

Marber, who hilariously captures a rumpled, chain-smoking loser suddenly glimpsing his chance of success, brings an unexpected savagery to the role of Fox that electrifies the house. Strong brings a disconcertingly reptilian quality to the role of Gould, while Kimberly Williams has exactly the right air of tantalising enigma as the tempting temp.

This is a spellbinder of a play, that tells us as much about the murky workings of human nature as it does about the suspect values of Hollywood.

(Copyright 2000 (c) The Telegraph plc, London)

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