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Speed-the-Plow in Manchester

Designer Andrew Wood ingeniously transformed the long, narrow stage into a strip of film, with sprocket holes painted on the margins of a ramp sloping gently upwards from the only entrance,

By David Mamet
Contact Theatre, Manchester, England
27 February 1997

Spectators entering the auditorium of Manchester’s Contact Theatre could be forgiven for thinking they had been misdirected to a corridor: they face each other on hard wooden benches across a playing area perhaps fifteen feet in width. For this production of David Mamet’s vituperative satire on Hollywood, designer Andrew Wood ingeniously transformed the long, narrow stage into a strip of film, with sprocket holes painted on the margins of a ramp sloping gently upwards from the only entrance, at one end of the strip, towards a desk and chair occupied by Hollywood executive Bobby Gould (Kieran Cunningham) at the other. To reach Gould, his associate Charlie Fox (Rupert Holliday Evans) and temporary secretary Karen (Diane Parish) were required to walk the entire length of the stage, awkward victims of his new position of power.

How others gain access to and manipulate that power provides the play’s impetus. At the beginning, Gould announces that he is “in the midst of the wilderness.” Into the wilderness come two potential saviours: Fox, who offers material success; and Karen, who promises spiritual salvation. Either may be a demon. By the end, Gould is ‘lost,’ and yet must follow one course or the other. Gould, then, must be clearly susceptible to the arguments of others, and both Fox and Karen must be persuasive advocates. Contact’s production was only partially successful in these respects. Evans was convincing as a hypertense Charlie Fox, the one constant in the play, who knows what he wants and makes no attempt to conceal why he wants it. Cunningham played Gould with comic bravado, and his fashionable goatee beard and powerful frame gave the character a physical presence which contrasted effectively with the wiry Fox, whose assault on Gould in the final act gained in intensity and effectiveness as a result. Throughout the first and second acts, however, there was otherwise little to distinguish the two men. Their amoral laddishness, reminiscent of the currently popular BBC television series Men Behaving Badly, excluded Gould’s introspective quality, that fear about his soul rather than his career, which actors such as Colin Stinton had previously brought to the part. The dialogue lacked the rhythmic counterpointing which might have indicated Gould’s vulnerability, while the play’s end showed him reverting to type with a rapidity and ease which stretched the credibility of his intervening spiritual crisis beyond breaking point.

The problem was compounded by the performance of Diane Parish as Karen, notoriously the most difficult role in the play. Taken in isolation, Parish’s conversion of Cunningham in the second act was superbly conducted: speaking slowly, with assurance in the rhythm and intonation, she gave ‘The Bridge’ a biblical weight and intensity which were missing in other productions I have seen. Yet in the first act Karen was a stereotype, the childishly dim-witted secretary with blank, wide-eyed expression, comically high-pitched voice, and frequent nervous giggles. Although the intellectually powerful and emotionally mature character of the second act might have been capable of creating this parody, it was impossible to accept that such a cynical Gould would have failed to recognize the deception.

Director Benjamin Twist made good use of conditions and cast, focusing on the dramatic potential afforded by the entrance of an enigmatic black woman into a predictable white man’s world; but there was insufficient variety in pacing within each act to sustain the extreme contrast between the sonorous central act and the comic drama surrounding it.