Swimming with Sharks
George Huang, in a version by Michael Lesslie
Hollywood producers are currently very much in vogue on the stage. It is only a couple of weeks since Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias opened at The Tricycle, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow is due to revive on Broadway in the spring and who can forget Mel Brooks' musical masterpiece, The Producers?
Joining the ranks in the West End, is a stage version of Swimming with Sharks, a movie that is somewhere close to cult status thanks to an unforgettable performance by Kevin Spacey as the producer from hell, Buddy Ackerman.
In many ways, it is a brave decision to recreate this story on stage, since Anglo-American director Wilson Milam and his cast, led by Christian Slater returning to the London stage after his success in another film adaptation One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, were inevitably going to be compared with much-loved originals enjoying the kind of budget that the West End can only dream of.
Dick Bird's design cleverly resolves the potential technical problems of staging a play that requires two different locations almost simultaneously. He sets Ackerman's glass-fronted executive office above and behind a kind of anti-chamber that is occupied by his PA Guy, Matt Smith. Just when we have got used to this, it then revolves for the pivotal scene in Ackerman's home gym.
Buddy Ackerman is the kind of sadist who delights in making life unpleasant for everybody around him. The only exceptions are the bosses whom he brown-noses, at least to their faces. Somewhat to his chagrin, he is the third in line to the throne at his film company Keystone Productions, having made his name and oodles of dollars with such bloodthirsty exploitation movies as Graduate Graves, Skin Farm and High School Massacre.
When it comes to dirty tricks Ackerman is in a class of his own, lying, cheating and stealing in an effort to get his way. After he discovers that the next in line is terminally ill, the inappropriately named Buddy demonstrates the kind of ambition that makes Macbeth look laid-back, in his efforts to beat the never-seen Stella to the job.
However, in trying to walk all over Guy and Helen Baxendale playing Dawn Lockard, the one woman in Hollywood who has turned the serial sex addict down, Ackerman gets very close to meeting his match. This pair turns out to share that Hollywood rarity - integrity and then for a brief while, love.
As those who are familiar with the film will know, it moves coherently forwards to a point where nerves finally reach snapping point in an unusual scene that doesn't quite fit in with what has gone before but carries great dramatic weight and creates a taut and unexpected ending.
It is only in that scene, with Ackerman under the most severe pressure, that Christian Slater really gets into the role. For far too long, he fails to expunge the memory of Kevin Spacey, who played the part as if it was written for him (which it might have been).
Far stronger are Helen Baxendale who manages to be tough, intellectual and sexy simultaneously, and Matt Smith who, despite several stage successes to date, proves to be a real revelation moving from geeky, downtrodden film buff at the start of the play to master of the universe by the time that the final curtain falls.
Playing until 19th January, 2008
Reviewer: Philip Fisher