Speed-the-Plow

David Mamet

The Old Vic

(2008)

Review by Philip Fisher

Even by his own high standards, Kevin Spacey had pulled out all the stops to create a remarkable celeb fest at the opening night for Matthew Warchus' revival of David Mamet's incisive 1988 look at the world of Hollywood producers.

Anyone who is anyone was there, which is a tribute to the theatre's artistic director and to some extent, the people that he has already been able to cast during his reign. Sir Ian McKellen, Robert Lindsay and Sandy Toksvig have all starred there in recent years, and they were joined by the likes of Lord (Melvyn) Bragg, Harvey Keitel, Richard Wilson and Joely Richardson.

The names on stage were also pretty glittery, with Spacey joined by another American film star, Jeff Goldblum, and, perhaps less predictably, Mary Poppins and Lord of the Rings lead, Laura Michelle Kelly the musical specialist who has just made her celluloid debut in Sweeney Todd.

This trio did a good job of filling a large stage, helped by Rob Howell's sets featuring a gigantic, brightly lit, piano-shaped Hollywood office, which converted into an L.A. poolside for the second act.

Speed-the-Plow features three very distinctive moods in only 90 minutes, played without an interval. The first act sees the very tall, angular Goldblum as freshly promoted studio number two Bobby Gould, revelling in his newly-found authority.

He seems to be having a year's worth of luck in a day, when Spacey, playing Charlie Fox, turns up with news that he can provide the studio with a sure-fire hit starring one of the biggest names of the day.

The men's mutual appreciation, possibly in part fuelled by the kind of illegal substances that ensure pacy repartee, makes them look like Cheshire cats in a grinning competition. The backchat is also extremely funny, aided by an impressive double act with Goldblum playing calmer foil to Spacey's manic wit.

Well over the top, this scene also seems eminently believable in an enclosed world that plays by its own, highly profitable but sometimes bizarre, rules. An injection of sanity, and - even more importantly- morality, from the real world arrives in the person of "the new broad", a temporary secretary named Karen played by Miss Kelly.

It is Charlie's own fault but when he bets 500 bucks that Gould cannot get the girl into bed that night, he allows their fragile world to leave its normal orbit, at least for a while.

Bobby's transparent excuse for inviting her home is a request that she reads a novel about the end of the world, which has no hope of becoming a film at any point before that unwished for event.

Cut to poolside where the innocent begins to make an unconvincing case for filming this worthy book rather than Charlie's guaranteed blockbuster, which enjoys the merit of having no merit, if one ignores its box office. Gould enjoys an overnight transformation which clearly owes little to a change in his moral standards and far more to the cuteness of the dame.

The final act picks up the pace again as the two men clash, dramatically with blood flowing, as Charlie tries to knock some sense back into loved-up Bobby.

The ending is sadly inevitable and shows that David Mamet intended Speed-the-Plow to be not only an indictment of the film industry, where money is more important than art or morality, but also an allegory for the soulless, dollar-driven country that America had become. One might easily argue that little has changed today, ensuring that the play retains contemporary relevance.

While the first scene is a highly comic and the last eventually poignant, the production goes flat in the middle as Karen tediously promotes a book that she makes sound even more boring than it probably really is. Overall though, this is an enjoyable evening that will bring crowds flocking in to see a sharp, funny satire about the movie industry, featuring three big stars who should know all about it.