Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet

Playhouse Theatre

From 26 October 2017 to 03 February 2018

Review by Philip Fisher

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The most terrifying thing about David Mamet’s coruscating attack on the sales industry and, by extension, capitalism in the mid-1980s is that to the extent anything has changed in the ensuing 35 years it is for the worse.

Sam Yates’s new production opens with a series of heart-to-heart conversations featuring scintillating, ultra-realistic dialogue between pairs of straight talking, foul-mouthed men in a Chinese restaurant somewhere in Chicago.

Soon enough, one gets the gist as real estate salesman beat their metaphorical chests like latter-day Tarzans. The leader of the pack is Hollywood favourite Christian Slater in the role of Ricky Roma. With his slick suit and camel hair coat, not to mention a charming line in smooth talk, this is the man heading for the Cadillac awarded to the corporation’s top salesman.

So good is his patter that mugs fall for it every time, only subsequently realising what they have done by which point they are probably too embarrassed to rescind. Even better, those that attempt to escape get even more persuasive treatment, which is equally amusing and chilling when witnessed on stage.

However, one swiftly discovers that the sales business is a zero-sum game since for every winner there must be a loser. In some instances, the loser is the mark who is conned (and there is no other word) into purchasing real estate units that they probably never wanted and certainly don’t need.

In the case of Don Warrington’s George and more particularly Shelley “The Machine” Levene, a kind of updated Willy Loman given deep pathos by Stanley Townsend, older salesmen who have lost their touch suffer their own kind of death, professionally if not physically. All that they care about is getting an allocation of the premium leads, i.e. those that might turn into sales rather than the dross that is palmed off on those who are unlikely to sell anyway.

In this kind of environment, if you lose you might as well be dead and, for reasons of his own, Dave Moss, given perfect comic timing by Robert Glenister, is happy to sell the idea of backstabbing revenge on the unseen directors of the company and their representative in the office, Kris Marshall’s nerdy John Williamson.

Having set the scene in a first act that runs to less than half an hour, the interval is required in order for the Chinese restaurant to be transformed by designer Chiara Stephenson into the real estate company’s office. This would look pretty seedy at the best of times but these are the worst, since overnight it has been burgled, with the target not cash or assets (though the phones have disappeared) but those leads, which are worth their weight in gold.

The remainder of an evening that stretches to one and three-quarter hours including the interval is filled with rich comedy as the salesmen begin to self-destruct in their efforts to climb the ladder at the same time as a weary police officer and Williamson attempt to discover and expose the perpetrator of the crime.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of David Mamet’s best plays and has stood the test of time remarkably well. Not only does it provide great opportunities for Christian Slater in the lead but also Stanley Townsend and Robert Glenister. The play also highlights so much of what is wrong with society today and should act as a perfect warning to avoid any smooth-talking salesman who happens to collar you in a bar, Chinese restaurant or even his office.