Race

David Mamet
Hampstead Theatre
to

The combination of David Mamet and director Terry Johnson proves to be a real winner in this belated London transfer of a play that hit Broadway as long ago as 2009. In it, the playwright uses techniques honed in Oleanna to address contemporary issues of race and gender.

Johnson is helped by a script that is as sharp as a knife and a British cast which may not have quite have the glamour of its American counterpart comprising James Spader, Richard (John-Boy Walton) Thomas, Kerry Washington and David Alan Grier but manages to screw every grain of humour from a very witty script.

The play is set in a Tim Shortall-designed, wood-panelled, book-lined legal office where one of those ultra-rich, ultra-lazy Masters of the Universe Charles Strickland, played by Charles Daish, is seeking succour.

This is the consequence of a night of passionate stupidity, which has subsequently been mirrored by more real-life politicians and diplomats that one cares to remember.

What is beyond dispute is that in a society that seeks to condemn anyone who is not 100% politically correct, this rich white man had adulterous sex with a poorer black woman who then cried rape.

The main debate that exercises a hilarious, wise-cracking legal double act of Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, played respectively by Jasper Britton and Clarke Peters, is whether to take a case that will almost certainly result in reputational disaster whether they win or lose.

At the same time, the pair are more than a little interested to discover what lies behind their prospective client's misjudgement and misdemeanour. Was Strickland guilty of rape or merely picking the wrong woman to fall in love with?

It doesn't take long to realise that he has chosen badly, as we discover that the lady's main motive for the relationship is material and quite possibly nothing more than following her seamy profession.

What would be a fine legal drama and interesting dissection of the American law business today is given an extra dimension by the presence of Nina Toussaint-White's Susan. She is a junior attorney who is both attractive and black, spicing up the mix as the story unfolds.

Susan gets treated equally badly by both of her bosses and reacts like Oleanna, which switches the evening's emphasis a little too sharply and makes Mamet's intentions all too clear.

While this is a legal drama, the writer is clearly more fascinated by taboo issues such as attitudes to race and gender and the desperate attempts that in which all others become embroiled when we try to avoid giving offence even where it might be richly deserved.

Terry Johnson has been blessed with a wonderful cast, all of whom are on top form at the same time, though Jasper Britton manages to prove primus inter pares even in this company.

For much of its 80-minute running time, Race takes on serious ethical issues in a light-hearted but deeply satisfying manner. The speed of delivery takes the breath away and guarantees a fulfilling evening that will leave viewers pondering and quite possibly arguing about the subject matter long after they leave the theatre.

As such, this should be compulsory viewing, even if its dramatic closure is a little too simplistic and pat for what is otherwise such a sophisticated and elegant piece.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher