Review - Bitter Wheat starring John Malkovich at the Garrick Theatre
From the moment David Mamet's Bitter Wheat, a thinly-disguised portrayal of a Harvey Weinstein-like film producer's fall from grace was first announced as heading to the London stage earlier this year, it aroused controversy and hostility in equal measure. Some prominent critics and commentators took it to task, sight unseen, for offering a male perspective of the #MeToo story that was properly the territory, they said, of female writers only.
Perhaps they should have bided their time. The entire misconceived project that has actually opened at the Garrick provides its own fast damnation. Distasteful and misjudged don't begin to describe it. If, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about, then Bitter Wheat would be an instant winner - but talking about it could prove to be a lot more interesting and provocative than the stupefyingly silly and frequently offensive black "comedy" that has been served up here under the author's own lethargic direction.
None of the last five original plays that Mamet opened on Broadway have made their way to the West End (though his 2009 entry Race came to Hampstead Theatre), and two more of his Off-Broadway plays Boston Marriage and Romance were subsequently seen at the Donmar Warehouse and Almeida respectively.
His gift, if it can be called that, for deliberate provocation has shone through many of these, but Bitter Wheat is in a class of mediocrity and outrage in equal measure of its own. And making the West End the dubious try-out home for this deeply unpalatable play is actively offensive: at a time when American writers like Lynn Nottage (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat just transferred to the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue last week), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (whose new play Appropriate comes to the Donmar Warehouse in August) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (whose Fairview, another Pulitzer winner, will open at the Young Vic in late November), it is both tired and tiring to find an apologist for men behaving badly occupying a major West End theatre.
And make no mistake: Mamet comes to praise Weinstein and his ilk, not bury him. As portrayed by John Malkovich with a shambling sense of grossness and self-hatred that's also meant to be ever-so-slightly charming and disarming rather than stomach-churning, we're even meant to feel badly for Barney Fein, as the Weinstein character is called, that his life is suddenly imploding, after he attempts (but fails) to seduce a South Korean born, Kent raised English actress who brings her film to him to distribute.
As with his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow, another rather better constructed dyspeptic take on the film industry in which a secretary gets the better of her boss, Mamet is partly revisiting territory he's been to before. But at least that secretary had a lot more agency (and success) than Sondra, who seems actively complicit in his bad behaviour. Comic wonder Doon Mackichan is entirely wasted in this role, reduced to mild grimaces and frowns where a more robust response might be in order.
Malkovich, who frequently looks pained and uncomfortable (partly the fat suit that he is sporting, but even more so for his efforts to make the dialogue convincing), has one moment that actually made me laugh, when he tries to get up off the floor that he ill-advisedly reclined upon. (There was another more unintentional comedy moment when the restaurant banquette he was seated on hadn't been locked into place and seemed to judder as he put his weight on it. The consternation on his face was actually real).
The rest of the cast are merely decoration around him, treated in various shades of contempt and dismissal. For a play that sets its stall as a black comedy, however, it is no laughing matter - in any sense.
Bitter Wheat tickets are available now.
"The real motor of the evening is Sheridan Smith, returning to the stage for the first time since 2016. As the narrator, the former Evening Standard Theatre Award-winner takes a series of hilarious cameo roles, belting out songs and hoofing through dance routines with a huge grin, a joyful figurehead for the ensemble of meticulously drilled adults and surprisingly charming children.."
Nick Curtis, Evening Standard, ★★★★☆
"Despite making his professional debut, he’s so assured and relaxed. He smiles through all of the silliness that the kids inflict on him, like a really patient and fun big brother. He blows Close Every Door out of the park and leads some really tricky – really spectacular – choreography from Joann M Hunter."
Tim Bano, The Stage, ★★★★☆
"Is this a show or a cult? As I left, the entire audience was standing and swaying, singing and clapping. Everyone was ecstatic, thrilled to be here for this new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first musical, which was first performed, at full length, in 1974."
Ann Treneman, The Times, ★★★★☆