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The Shawl

David Mamet
Canal Cafe Theatre
(2008)

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The Canal Cafe Theatre in Little Venice has for many years been famous as the home of the NewsRevue. Judging by this superb production, put together by the theatre's artistic director Emma Taylor, it has far more to offer than merely high-quality topical satire.

Miss Taylor has put together a highly professional cast for this revival of a rarely performed David Mamet play from 1985.

The hour-long piece takes place in the fussy sitting-room of John, played by American actor David Calvitto who has now settled in London. Designer Christine Osborne has primarily used red plush to create an atmosphere, appropriate for this mystical work that explores belief and credulity with wit but also great psychological insight.

We first meet John, seemingly reading the mind of Miss A, Scarlett Strallen in a very different part from her recent success as Mary Poppins. She is a young woman who has recently lost her mother and is seeking the kind of comfort that normally only comes from a charlatan or spiritualist. She also wants advice regarding what might be a large inheritance

John has this uncanny knack of second-guessing his guest, who is gradually drawn into what is either an incredible comfort or an outrageous scam but might just be both. Which of the two it is becomes more apparent in the second scene when she is replaced by Charles (Richard Standing).

This uncouth bruiser's relationship with John is unclear and might be either based on physical attraction or mutual desire for money. Either way, it appears that they are a pair of confidence tricksters at odds over how much money they wish to extract from the distraught Miss A.

From there, Mamet cleverly toys with his audience, giving them enough information to believe that the lady is being cheated but then putting doubts into their minds as John uses enough skilful trickery to suggest that he might be a kind of latter-day Sherlock Holmes.

Calvitto, who is on stage throughout, makes his character both interesting and sympathetic, seemingly caring more at times about his prospective gull than her money. He excels bringing great colour to the part, well supported by his colleagues, who have far less material to play with in this hour-long psychological comedy drama.

It would be nice to feel that such a professional production could transfer to a larger theatre and there is little doubt that if it did so, it would prove popular. On the basis that this cannot be relied upon, readers are urged to head out to this lovely venue, where they can also enjoy a beer overlooking the tranquil Little Venice Canal.

Playing Wednesdays to Saturdays until 17th May

Reviewer: Philip Fisher