It’s not exactly James McAvoy unicycling in his underwear, but watching Damien Lewis sporting a 70s handlebar moustache and wearing a giant paper hat that he’s just made out of newspaper, ranks pretty highly on the list of things I was not expecting to see this year. American Buffalo has just opened at the Wyndhams and is a sure sign that 2015 is disappearing fast as this marks the fourth of the ‘big five’ performances I earmarked in my Christmas review post. That means we’ve already had 3 months of a serenely comic McAvoy in The Ruling Class; a second stint for much deserved Olivier award winner Mark Strong in the epic A View from the Bridge; Ralph Fiennes is already two months into his brilliant philosophising bachelor in Man and Superman and that brings us up to date with Damien Lewis. The only one left is Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, which although booked long before any of the above, is still several months away. Thank God Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick season is in the bag or the autumn would be looking very grim.
Anyway back to Lewis, who is joined in David Mamet’s American Buffalo by John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in this comedy-drama about three very different men planning a heist. Don (Goodman) owns a junk shop and he’s just undersold a rare coin – the American Buffalo – to a collector, except it wasn’t until afterwards that he realised his mistake. Feeling cheated, he enlisted the help of his young friend Bob (Sturridge) to find the customer’s address and steal his coin collection. As the play opens Bob has found the man and the job is on for tonight. At this point Walter or ‘Teach’ (Lewis), Don’s poker buddy and apparent local gangster, arrives and convinces Don to letting him do the job instead as Bob isn’t the brightest lad. As the three men wait for night to fall they discuss the ways of the world while their greed starts to get the better of them.
Mamet’s play is about the engagement of three very different forms of masculinity, and its central characters could not be more different. Each separated by age, but drawn together under the umbrella of ‘business’, they depict a very particular kind of male friendship – one that isn’t necessarily based on personal interactions or shared experiences, but on a level of trustworthiness. They all live and work in the same area and like colleagues have developed a reliance on one another that on the surface seems quite superficial. They play cards together, eat breakfast in the shop and complain about their friends, but never openly discuss their families, feelings or aspirations. Yet without necessarily realising it they need each other, drawn together by the limitations of their lives, metaphorically trapped in Don’s junk shop with no way out.
John Goodman makes his very welcome West End debut as Don, the pseudo father figure who runs the shop and plans the job. He’s friendly and extremely tolerant of Bob’s inability to grapple with more complex thoughts, caring for him. Initially he doesn’t seem that strong or much of a criminal mastermind, but Goodman brings a quiet authority that somehow makes the others do what he says, even though Teach in particular could overpower him. Don is the centre of the play, it’s his shop and his heist, card games take place in his place and the others come to him. But Goodman also brings out the anxiety of a man seemingly unused to criminal endeavour to great comic and dramatic effect.
Tom Sturridge has quite a small role as Bob but one he makes the most out of. There is farm-boy quality to Bob, lost in the big city and not quite an adult. Even in the course of this one day, he frequently comes to Don for money and Sturridge cleverly implies that the others have underestimated his ability to grasp what’s going on and act on it. His performance ranges from wide-eyed innocence to a slightly hard-edged need to be recognised / rewarded for what he’s done, and he makes for an interesting contrast to the two more worldly characters.
Teach completes the trio and this is Damien Lewis as you probably haven’t seen him before – the sharp aubergine suit, flares, moustache, and sideburns indicate a man who has a lot of outward confidence, as well as a love of style. A softly spoken American gangster accent pits him somewhere between John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Christian Bale in American Hustle and a Tarantino character. His arrival onstage alone heralded a peel of laughter from the audience, but Lewis instils Teach with a dangerous quality – he may be calm and compliant among his friends, but you get the feeling that one wrong word and he would brutally lash out. And later in the play you begin to see more of his frustration about being respected come to the fore. Still, it’s interesting that Teach obeys Don and tells you something about the hierarchy operating here which comes across nicely in Lewis’s layered performance, as well as that slightly deluded sense that this man thinks he’s more important or tougher than he really is.
The set and costume designer Paul Willis has had great fun, and once you get used to Lewis’s suit you can marvel at his brilliant version of Don’s junk shop. This feels like a deeply masculine environment, echoing the themes of the play really well. It’s full of bits and pieces all over the floor and stacked around the room, with a feeling of grease and age, so imagine a garage full of old stuff but turned into a shop. Above is a dense canopy of old chairs and bikes suspended from the ceiling to emphasise how confined these men are in their little world – the can never go up because above them there’s even more junk.
American Buffalo is sure to be another hit and will have crowds flocking to see its three lead actors. We may hear about other characters, some of which are even women, but Don, Teach and Bob are drawn together by need disguised as ‘business’. Despite their differences in age, character and attitude, there is also a timeless feel to this production and you know if you came back to them in 10 or 20 years, they’d all still be here, dreaming big but always losing. They may never exactly say what’s on their minds, but they have each other so by the close of Act II you know that whatever words pass between them, however vilely they act to one another, they will always be friends.
American Buffalo is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 27 June. Tickets start at £22.25 for a seat and standing tickets are available from £17.25. For a cheap ticket if you’re going alone or don’t want to sit with your friends, I recommend Seat A1 or A26 in the Balcony – a sideways seat separated from the main block which has a perfect view and a small but private space with no one nearby. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1