The Shawl

David Mamet
Arcola Theatre
(2009)

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This is a beautifully written and beautifully acted play that presents us with John, a charlatan psychic, one of his female clients and his boy friend - hardly his lover for the younger man Charles is clearly out for what he can get, though John appears to be in his thrall and treating him as a protégé whom he is teaching his 'skills.' It is much more than a simple picture of a con-man and plays with our own sense of trust and belief as it twists from layers of truth to artifice. Scenes with the woman, including a séance, alternate with scenes between the two men in which John explains how he has come up with his apparent psychic insights

The woman (a sensitively cool performance from Elizabeth McGovern, conveying a great deal beyond the text), who has a trick or two of her own up her sleeve, is both mourning a dead mother and feeling deprived by her will which she wants advice on contesting. Charles (Paul Rattray) urges John to encourage her to do so, and to get their hands on the inheritance themselves but, cheat though he is, John sees himself as still performing a service for his clients, supplying a need, and relies on their gratitude to make them give him money.

The woman catches John out in one error and he confesses another piece of faking but he hits on some surprisingly accurate information - and not all of it seems to come from his research or his close observation of his 'prey.' Could he, unawares, actually have real psychic powers?

Matthew March is splendid as John, not least in that, while sounding convincingly American, he manages to articulate most of the consonants and, unlike some many mumbling American performers on screen, is entirely comprehensible throughout, bringing out the strengths of Mamet's elliptical dialogue.

I couldn't recommend this simply staged production more (design Anna Bliss Scully, lighting Richard Howell) but be warned that at 55 minutes it is infuriatingly short. March makes his character so engrossing that you want to know much more. While in reading a short story such a brief glimpse may seem perfectly acceptable and wanting more is surely a mark of good work, in a live performance this curtailment makes one feel the curtain has come down far too soon. I can hardly expect an extended version of a play written more than twenty years ago but at least we might have had this piece paired with another short Mamet to make this a double bill.

At the Arcola until 3rd October 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton