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True West review

Review - True West starring Kit Harington at the Vaudeville Theatre

Mark Shenton

Mark Shenton

December 5, 2018 00:00

By interesting coincidence, Sam Shepard's powerful sibling drama True West is being revived simultaneously both in the West End and on Broadway this month. That's testament to this 1980 play's enduring appeal and in particular its ability to attract star players who want to play its opposing brothers.

I've previously seen Matthew Warchus direct versions in London and New York where the actors have both played each role, alternating from night to night: at the Donmar in 1994, it was Mark Rylance and American actor Mark Rudko, while at Broadway's Circle in the Square in 2000, it was John C Reilly and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.

That approach both upped the ante on the acting challenges, but also highlighted how both brothers are cut from the same cloth - yet even as their lives have taken radically different routes before we meet them tonight at their mother's home where Austin is house-sitting for her while she is on holiday in Alaska, they also quickly reawaken old hostilities. And, as the play progresses, they seem to swap roles in front of our eyes, as Lee turns himself into an accidental screenwriter and Austin takes on Lee's mantle as a house burglar. 

Matthew Dunster's new West End production doesn't attempt so radical a gesture as to have the actors themselves swap roles. Instead, we have Kit Harington (best known for Game of Thrones) as the intense, nerdy writer Austin, while Johnny Flynn is his long-estranged brother Lee, who works the neighbourhood relieving neighbours of their television sets.

If Harington has a wary, coiled intensity, Flynn's more free-form, rock 'n' roll ranginess gives the play its dangerous, compelling edge. You're never quite sure what his next move is going to be. Yet when they end up in a terrible brawl, you suddenly fear for him, too, as his younger brother's violent temper is unleashed.

Shepard's play is still a knock-out, nearly forty years on from its San Francisco premiere. This revival eventually gathers heat, but it feels a little underpowered to begin with. The deep, angled kitchen setting by Jon Bausor provides an interesting perspective to bring us into its world, though the lifting of the walls to reveal the neon-lit desert outside suddenly dispels the naturalism of the play in an unhelpful direction.

True West is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 23rd February. 

True West tickets are available now. 

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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