tue 22/10/2019

Race, Hampstead Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Race, Hampstead Theatre

Race, Hampstead Theatre

David Mamet can't even make it to court in his short-changing legal drama

Mamet-lite: Charles Daish, Nina Toussaint-White and Clarke Peters in 'Race'

We know that David Mamet doesn’t beat about the bush. He tackles sensitive issues and the least attractive aspects of human nature head on, while his characters use language as weapons against each other with such ferocity and guile that the audience is left with a sort of battered admiration.

That’s Mamet at his best: American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plough, Oleanna. But Race doesn’t see the playwright at his best. Some of this play’s failings are evident in the title – it’s too self-conscious, too obvious, too intent on nailing the big theme. At the same time, it falls short of meaningful insight. Perhaps most surprisingly, it simply isn’t very dramatic.

The way these guys grandstand right out of the blocks, posturing and pontificating, simply doesn't ring true

Designer Tim Shortall, who recently demonstrated what you can do with a tiny stage and minimal dressing in These Shining Lives at the Park Theatre, enjoys the bigger canvas at Hampstead, creating a beautifully brown-panelled, book-lined, expensively upholstered lawyer’s office, whose vast windows look over a skyscraper city. This is the setting for the battle of wills involving three lawyers – two partners and their trainee – and a potential client who has been charged with rape.

Though the charge is a sexual one, the subject that’s muddying the waters, for the lawyers, is race. As far as they’re concerned, whether Charles Strickland (Charles Daish) is innocent or not is irrelevant; the fact that the alleged victim is black means his goose is cooked.

The play opens with Jack Lawson and Henry Brown (Jasper Britton and Clarke Peters, pictured below with Nina Toussaint-White) giving Strickland an almighty brow-beating about the mess of racial hatred and political correctness that makes his position a grim one. They turn him every which way, partly to prove that the justice system is an “alley fight” – and they are the best brawlers in town – and partly in search of good reasons why they should take his case.

The fact that Brown is himself black is used by the attorney to make Strickland even more uncomfortable. “What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?” Brown asks. “Nothing,” is the meek reply. “That’s absolutely right.”

While there are credible issues here, the way these guys grandstand right out of the blocks, posturing and pontificating, simply doesn't ring true. This tirade and those that follow, as the attention switches to black young assistant Susan (Toussaint-White) and whether Jack has been altogether PC as her boss, smack of contrivance, of a writer working through ideas rather than breathing life into a story.

As directed by Terry Johnson, the result is a brisk and fairly enjoyable 90 minutes of Mamet-lite. The muscular language is in evidence, including some recognisable jabs beneath the rib cage as characters tease truth and motivation out of one another, but a lot of the skipping around the ring doesn’t add up to much. The structure is poor, with little sense of the time that’s passing, and the sudden conclusion, with a horribly black and white punchline (no pun intended), is anticlimactic.

Britton reminds me a little of Kevin Spacey, with that air of devilment and self-satisfaction as he owns the room. Peters, with serious form on the London stage but best known as the great, cerebral detective Lester Freamon in television's The Wire, lends weight to proceedings, while also getting the best, lewdest joke; but he, Daish and Toussaint-White are all hampered by under-developed characters.

The justice system is an 'alley fight', and they are the best brawlers in town

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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