THE WOODS Southwark Playhouse, SE1

NOT A FINE ROMANCE

    Mamet plays are Marmite plays. You can applaud Speed the Plow, adore Wag the Dog on screen, and have a pleasurable argument with the opposite sex after a particularly vicious Oleanna (Lucy Bailey directed David Mamet’s campus shocker with brio at the Arts in August, and a fearsome treat it was).   But Mamet can also irritate the hell out of you with his characters’ inspissated conversations about themselves.   So with marmitic caution and curiosity I approached this half-forgotten one from 1977, long before he got his Pulitzer. The Southwark Playhouse is often a good digger-up of forgotten gems of any century. Always worth a try.

     Certainly the quality is here, applied with rigour though to what turns out to be a pretty ho-hum 100-minute duologue.  Two barely likeable young people have  a weekend in a forest cabin and discuss their relationship, Nature, and his random childhood memories about a bloke who said he was kidnapped by Martians.  This, and a convincing – if repetitive  – mutual sexual pawing    transforms them before our eyes from happy-camper friends  to brawling, disintegrating hysterics.   Both are excellent:  note-perfect in the depressing characters they are given.   Sam Franchum has far less to do verbally but gives a masterclass in grumpy male body language, but Francesca Carpanini as Ruth utters from the start a torrent  of free-form, rambling remarks about moods, nature, fish,  grandparents, and how she has always dreamed of being with a lover in the country in the night and has brought him a mystery present .  In moments of irritation at his inattention, she mentions how he once said  he loves her but  “doesnt know who she is”.    

              You fight in your audience corner an urge to tell her to cool it, and advise both these kids that the next weekend a deux they would do well to take a good book each and give the chat a rest .    But Carpanini  holds it brilliantly,  swinging her arms around, gangling like an adolescent one minute,  clearly irritating the hell out of Frenchum’s moody Nick.  When she shrieks “A raccoon!” – hardly an amazing thing in American woods, frankly, they’re like squirrels here –  he does at least rouse himself with a worry that it might get at the garbage , before slumping back into his moody silence.

       Sometimes their mutual lust creates a change of mood – though late on, a briefly nasty one on his part – and there is interest for a while in the possibility that he might actually murder her for the sake of a bit of quiet.    He does take a swing at Ruth, which we are supposed to be deeply shocked by though in fairness she was attacking him unprovokedly with an oar at the time.  But in the first movingly truthful bit of the whole play  he reveals his terrified fear of being left alone.  And as women often resignedly do she becomes motherly. 

           It’s quite an unnerving end, which I suppose is what Mamet wanted.  But it’s hard to care enough or laugh enough or feel enough, despite the great skill of both young actors, who deserve better, and the Southwark’s remarkably good pricing considering the talent involved.    Russell Bolam directs and Anthony Lamble’s woodland cabin design is pleasing.  But I’m not sure it was worth digging this one up just for the Mamet name.    

Southwarkplayhouse.co.Uk To 26 March. 

rating three

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