Turning films into stage plays seems to be something of a mini trend at the moment in the West End. The Old Vic, led by artistic director Kevin Spacey, has turned a film by Pedro Almodovar into a stage version entitled 'All About My mother'. And here's Christian Slater starring in an adaptation of a 1994 film which had Spacey in the lead role.
'Swimming With Sharks' is a black comedy about the movie business in Hollywood. Specifically, it's about a film school graduate, Guy, who becomes the assistant to a big-shot movie producer Buddy Ackerman (played by Slater). Guy thinks this is a God-sent opportunity to get on in the film business, until he realises he's working for one of the employers from hell. Slater's Ackerman delights in demeaning his assistant at every available opportunity and humiliates him in private or in public without a second thought. When they first meet, Ackerman immediately puts his new assistant in his place: "Guy, I like that. It's anonymous". He then goes on to explain the nature of Guy's job - to serve his 'needs'. These include making coffee which Buddy describes in a lengthy and humorous lecture about sweeteners.
Ackerman's filmic forte lies in the seamier genres of the business. He's credited with bringing 'exploitation into the mainstream' and has little interest in films with more noble and worthwhile intentions, that is until the studio boss makes it clear that Ackerman's brand of filmmaking will not land him his desired job as head of production. So, Ackerman dupes his assistant into obtaining a film sponsored by independent producer Dawn Lockard (Helen Baxendale) with whom Guy has already begun an affair. The plan seems to go Ackerman's way until Guy realises that his producer girlfriend might also be sleeping with his boss. Guy seeks revenge in a manner much in keeping with the subject matter of Ackerman's films. However, there's a twist in the tail which is really not so surprising given that all the indicators of the outcome have been carefully laid in what has gone before.
The original film was written and directed by George Huang who worked in Hollywood as a film producer's assistant, and presumably had ample experience on which to draw. This stage version has been adapted by Michael Lesslie who's included some very funny lines in the play. For example, in explaining his aversion to art-house and indie films Ackerman says "Guilt and goodwill are my f***ing kryptonite!"
Matt Smith also provides a well-defined character transition from raw recruit to revenge-seeking boyfriend, and Helen Baxendale is the confident indie producer who still seems to have a heart in the right place, even after serving time in the gutter politics of the movie business.
Some of the themes in 'Swimming With Sharks' seem to resonate with the recently opened 'Glengarry Glen Ross' by David Mamet. The latter focuses on the dog-eat-dog world of selling which seems to have much in common with Hollywood where box office takings are just as important as the salesman's commission, and where people are just as undeniably expendable. However, 'Swimming With Sharks' packs a more cynical punch and has the edge in biting humour even though it's not nearly so poignant.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "you need better arguments and plotting than provided in Swimming With Sharks for this thriller to be taken seriously." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Slick production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A fast-moving evening." SAM MARLOW for THE TIMES says, "It’s dramatically uninteresting, and in Wilson Milam’s production oddly inert, lacking in tension or impetus and proceeding at a pretty pedestrian pace to a rather lame melodramatic climax and a predictably minor-key conclusion."