National Anthems

Dennis McIntyre
Old Vic
(2005)

National Anthems publicity image

Kevin Spacey's choice for his acting debut as Artistic Director of The Old Vic is one of his pet projects. He first played the part of Ben Cook 17 years ago and has personally owned the rights to the play ever since.

National Anthems announces itself as a satire on the collapse of the American Dream even before it starts. To the deafening clamour of Bob Seger, the massive Stars and Stripes that hangs in front of the stage unceremoniously collapses. This reveals the luxurious living room of the Reeds, designed by Jonathan Fensom as part of a two-storey wooden house.

The Artistic Director is not the only well-known name in the cast. Leslie Reed is played by Mary Stuart Masterson, who has achieved fame in many movies including Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, while Steven Weber as her husband Arthur, has appeared in numerous American TV series.

The former college football player and ex-cheerleader have become an attorney and teacher respectively and, apart from being childless, life could not be better as they proudly ride the wave of white American materialism.

This couple live in the classy Birmingham suburb of Detroit, Michigan, and have drowned themselves in imported wealth. Their car is German, their beer and stereo Danish and the conspicuous consumption of America in 1988 is exemplified by Arthur's $1,900 Armani suit. This is a man with true Thatcherite attitudes who knows the cost of everything that he owns and is happy to ram it down your throat.

The arrival of neighbour, Ben Cook, seems like a good opportunity to expatiate on the quality of their lives. However, this loud man with a drooping moustache and sideburns can give as good as he gets. He talks at incredible pace and volume. With a lack of irony but an excessive interest in detail, one might conclude that he suffers from mild autism. He takes over an hour to reveal the fact that he is a fireman who within the last week has been both a hero and fired (pardon the pun).

Cook also has the ability to draw laughs with his unwitting comments and willingness to agree with his hosts. Ultimately though, as he personifies the older, grittier America and Arthur represents brash modern wealth they advance towards an inevitable clash.

Surprisingly, this is physical, as after clearing the lounge and warming up like Sumo wrestlers, they start a one-on-one game of (American) football. From a political playwright, the victor is not hard to guess,although the win is achieved with the assistance of Leslie, by now like the men, regressing back to college days when she was a sexy cheerleader.

The final scene may have to be rewritten for any future production. Arthur's defeat is demonstrated by his smoking of a symbolic cigarette. If press coverage earlier on the day of this play's opening is to be believed, such a scene will soon be outlawed. However that is a matter for a separate debate.

It is pleasing to see that the man whom Spacey has chosen to direct his glittery American cast is young Englishman, David Grindley. He has already been successful with revivals of Abigail's Party and Journey's End and proves a good choice with his great sense of comic timing, nice touches like that opening flag and ability to direct necessarily over the top performances. Kevin Spacey is wonderful in his absolutely exhausting role and receives superb support from his fellow actors.

Dennis McIntyre achieves his goal in presenting the debunking of American materialism and provides great entertainment. He does so without fully fleshing out his characters and in particular, the Reeds. They may serve his literary purpose but he shows very little below the surface, so that they never become human beings. Arguably, this might make National Anthems perfect material for a Hollywood movie. With Mr S in the leading part, this could well become reality.

"National Anthems" runs until 23rd April

Reviewer: Philip Fisher