Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Spectator review
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Sheridan Morley reviews Peter Gill's production of David Mamet's Speed-the-plow (New Ambassadors) The Spectator, 25 March 2000

A decade or so ago, Speed-the-Plow was the play in which Madonna made her Broadway debut, thereby neatly unbalancing a relatively minor role; it then turned up in a much better staging at the National, though Mamet's script has always been an essentially one-joke sketch about Hollywood studio executives running amok, vastly less detailed in its analysis of California dreaming than, for instance, Christopher Hampton's Tales from Hollywood or almost any of the writing of the now shamefully neglected Clifford Odets. The new production at the New Ambassadors is slick and smooth, but the play itself is beginning to look faintly dated already.

Two old buddies, a cleancut studio executive (now Mark Strong) and a shambling but no less ambitious agent (now Patrick Marber, the local dramatist who often comes closest to Mamet's raw, urban writing pace), fall out over an apparently innocent young secretary (Kimberley Williams) and whether to give the greenlight to the agent's surefire blockbuster or the girl's more ecologically worthy picture about the perils of radiation.

That's about it for plot, and the problem here has always been that, whereas the first and last of three short acts are Mamet at his Glengarry best, Act II has always been a kind of uneasy intermission. The play of the movie only really comes to life in the studio office where it starts and ends and where no sentence is ever truly finished, no deal finalised, no contract signed, no movie yet made; as always with Mamet, the quickfire, manic intensity of the dialogue is the cardsharper's emotional sleight of hand.

But Speed-the-Plow also strains to be a morality play about power and sex and moral epilepsy; whether noting that in Los Angeles one wrong deal will turn your name into a punchline overnight, or that no movie is now ever made which cannot be summarised by one line in TV listings, Mamet is savagely energetic in his hatred of a film industry which he clearly sees as yet one more metaphor, like real estate (in Glengarry Glen Ross) or junk shops (in American Buffalo) for the moral and spiritual decline of his nation. But just as Hollywood defeated his spiritual father, Arthur Miller, in After The Fall, so it comes dangerously close to having the last laugh here. Not surprisingly, nobody has ever tried filming Speed-the-Plow, and Mamet is ironically now much more successful as a writer and director of movies than when he wrote this diatribe: but it remains a sharply savage satire in a brilliantly brittle new staging by Peter Gill.


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