Last year a three-hander Mamet play Speed-the-Plow came to the West End, starring a completely out-of-her-depth Lindsay Lohan (who failed to even remember her lines, though she did earn kudos for at least seeing out her run). It marked, I said at the time, a new low for the West End, putting an inappropriate, ill-prepared 'celebrity' name at the centre of a production to sell it, but in fact making it a sell-out in the other sense only (the cruel lesson of the production was that it didn't sell tickets, either).
Now American Buffalo, another three-hander Mamet play, has arrived at Wyndham's Theatre, and it is a different proposition altogether. This production has also been assembled with its eye on the box office, of course, with three stars of stage and screen joining forces to make a combustible trio. And instead of suggesting incredibility as Lohan's casting did, they are each both credible and creditable.
One is returning hero Damian Lewis — once a formidable London stage actor, but latterly lost to his homeland thanks to the US series Homeland; the second is American film and TV legend John Goodman (best known for TV's Roseanne and his screen collaborations with the Coen Brothers, including Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis); the third is rising young star Tom Sturridge (Tony nominated on Broadway last year for Orphans, and currently on screen in Far from the Madding Crowd; offstage, he is also known as Sienna Miller's fiancee).
Under the direction of Daniel Evans — an actor-turned-director who once trained at drama school with Lewis —they bring an exacting intelligence and ferocious commitment to a play about the twisting turns of a power-play between three men who are strangely bound together. John Goodman's Don is a kindly sort of father figure to Tom Sturridge's drifter Bob, and together they become embroiled with Damian Lewis's Teach, a gambling buddy of Don's, in a scheme to recover a buffalo nickel that was undersold in Don's junkshop.
But the plot isn't really the point of Mamet's play; it's all in the music and musicality of the words. Mamet's early plays — and this is the one that really made his name in 1975 and gave him his Broadway debut two years later — were dazzling in their brisk, brusque command of American vernacular. And it remains sometimes bewildering but always potent stuff.
Lewis, virtually unrecognisable both vocally and physically, commands the stage - its impossible to stop looking at his handlebar moustache and sideburns! — but he is matched in chameleon brilliance by both Goodman and Sturridge, in a play that resonates and reverberates afresh today as it first did 40 years ago.
"The performances may yet click together in a way that unlocks the play to the full. And I trust that usually on-the- money director Daniel Evans will look to this. At the moment, however, it’s all enjoyable enough but a bit dime-a- dozen."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"All three actors are very fine but the great virtue of this production is that it is more than a showpiece for stars and highlights Mamet’s ability to write a far-reaching fable about the jungle of American capitalism."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The pathos, despite Goodman’s heroic efforts, never quite grabs my guts. But if Mamet is your thing, you will surely want to catch this bespoke production."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"This starry revival boasts three fine performances and moments of abrasive comedy, even if it takes a while to come to the boil."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard