“They say fuck in direct proportion to how bored they are”
Continuing the rather scattershot programming that is going on at the Arcola since its move closer to Dalston Junction, a David Mamet double bill of two rarely performed short plays, Lakeboat and Prairie Du Chien, from early in his career is playing in the smaller Studio 2, whilst Studio 1 is dark until Uncle Vanya arrives from Coventry.
Lakeboat is set on an ageing cargo ship somewhere out of Chicago on the Great Lakes as English Lit student Dale joins the grizzled, heavy-swearing crew for the summer to replace the missing night chef, tales of whose disappearance are whirling around the ship. On the face of it, there’s perhaps not much to the play, but as a series of male character studies and the different ways in which men talk to each other, with all their braggadocio, masculine swagger, tales of sexual conquest and exertions of power where possible, it is highly illuminating. There’s some moments of great humour, usually concerning the most mundane of subjects, egg sandwiches or Clint Eastwood for example, but there’s also hints of darker places, sexual violence and intense loneliness. Steven Webb as Dale serves as the straight man for all the other characters with a brilliantly light wry touch and though everyone did well in the ensemble, Nigel Cooke’s plaintive Joe and particularly Rory Keenan’s handsomely beardy and fantastically filthy Fred were standouts.
The second half features Prairie Du Chien, a much shorter piece set on a 1910 railcar making a scheduled stop on a long night-time journey: 2 men play a game of cards whilst another tells a haunting story to another passenger who is watching over his sleeping son. As The Storyteller, Nigel Cooke’s rich mellifluous tones make his ghostly tale of unfaithful wives and burning barns highly atmospheric and the way in which he works around the noisy interjections from the neighbouring table as the card game threatens to turn violent is perfectly played with small but essential contributions from Rory Keenan’s increasingly irate player and Nigel Whitmey’s dealer. Ed Hughes also did well with a minimum of words and a range of intent faces as The Listener but I couldn’t really see the economy in employing a different actor to play the largely wordless part of the son given we’d lost a couple from the first ensemble.
Even without any real sense of plot, the flashes of character that emerged and the dramatic building and intercutting of mystery with tension made this an interesting companion piece to the stronger Lakeboat. Taken together, they provide a nice insight into the development of Mamet’s incredibly sharp writing style, evident even in his early work (although revised later in his career) and character-building and here in Abbey Wright’s production, with some consistently excellent dialect work by Tim Charrington, it showcases a great ensemble.