As if we hadn't learned enough about the sordid, money-grabbing world of Hollywood producers from last year's 'Swimming With Sharks' starring Christian Slater, the artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, and his fellow-american film star, Jeff Goldblum, join forces to give us another glimpse of what goes on in the swanky executive offices of tinsel town. Actually, this could almost be anywhere now. And more to the point, it could almost be any industry. We don't need to look much further than our bank and credit card statements to realise that Hollywood doesn't hold all the trump cards in the greed department any more, or the commanding heights of ambition and ruthlessness in the race to earn shed-loads of filthy lucre. So, though it might have been aimed initially at the antics of the film industry, David Mamet's 1988 play has more widespread applicability these days, and in some ways is thus even more depressing.
Bobby Gould (Jeff Goldblum) and Charlie Fox (Kevin Spacey) have been working together for a decade or more in the film business. Gould has recently managed to land the plumb job of head of production in a studio and is still having his office renovated (or should that be restyled?) when Charlie rushes in with incredible news. A top film star will defect to Gould's studio in order to make a blockbuster movie which is more than likely to make them both mega rich. All they have to do is to get the ok from the head of the studio, and they can start hiring people to decide what things they'll buy with their enormous earnings. However, the course of money-making doesn't go smoothly. Goldblum's eyes are not exclusively focused on raking in cash – they've rolled in the direction of his temp secretary, Karen (played by Laura Michelle Kelly). Gould makes a bet with Fox about whether he can seduce Karen. Then Gould asks her to review a book he's been sent with the objective of getting her to his home and then into his bed. Surprisingly for Gould, it turns out to be something more of a spiritual encounter than a romantic one.
Split into three scenes, or short acts, 'Speed-the-Plow' runs for less than 90 minutes without an interval. The scene changes are laborious and have to be covered with irritating typing sound effects and text which appears on the front cloth. Partly these lengthy changes are due to the nature of Rob Howell's curved, stylish, and all-enclosed office set, but also have to allow for costume changes.
The first act is all quick-fire, cleverly-written banter which turns into almost child-like joy when Gould and Fox realise they've made the big time. They literally jump up and down with glee as they consider the wealth which is going to pour into their wallets.
By contrast, the second act is rather tedious - intentionally so, I suspect. Kelly has most of the lines here as she describes the equally tedious rantings of the book she's suddenly (and suspiciously) become a devotee of, and attempts to persuade Gould to film it. While Kelly quotes from the (dreary) book, Gould spends most of his time in contemplative rumination and is surprised to find Karen is ahead of his game - knowing exactly why he's asked her to review the book and give her report of it at his home.
It's the final act which really makes the play and is a real coupe de grace. When Spacey's Fox realises Gould is going to side-step the blockbuster and make a film of the book, his rage knows no bounds, and there's soon blood on the carpet.
The audience loved this play, and could eagerly have sat through another hour or more, I would guess. And who would blame them? With the titanic duo of Spacey and Goldblum in faultless form and great direction from Matthew Warchus, it's pretty irresistible with plenty of laughs in the dialogue. My only reservation is whether Laura Michelle Kelly managed to keep us guessing about whether she was really just as ruthless as Gould and Fox under her skin, or whether she truly had more altruistic ambitions. In fact, Kelly really has the most difficult and complex role in this piece – not nearly so black and white as Spacey's and Goldblum's characters, and therefore much more difficult to play.
Delving into 'Speed-the-Plow' a little deeper, one realises it's more subtle than it might seem at first. It's as much about the reactions of us, the audience, as it is about those of Gould and Fox. We find the description of the book in the second act tedious and boring – even though it talks about important themes essential to the well-being of mankind. In fact, we don't give a hoot. Afterall, it's much more interesting to focus on the machinations of big-time producers whose supposedly glamorous work still seduces us. And it's the paying public of course who keep people like these up to their blockbuster credits in luxury. Makes you think.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "breakneck, intriguingly balanced revival ." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "What a rare, theatrical triumph Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum achieve with their virtuoso double act." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says "Exhilarating revival." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Both actors [Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum] deliver Mamet’s sharp, smart, rat-a-tat dialogue with a panache that creates a thrill of pure pleasure." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Brilliant production."