“I love the smell of toast. It makes me feel like anything is possible. Like a beginning”
The list of the NT2000 top 100 plays of the last centuryhas actually proved to be quite useful in ensuring a wider variety in my theatregoing than might otherwise have taken place. With a trusty partner in crime who’s equally determined to tick off the whole list, I’ve seen a few things now that I wouldn’t necessarily have gone to – the notion of a ‘classic’ play isn’t necessarily something that appeals to me in and of itself, I want to be able to make up my own mind thank you very much. But this is a list that knows of what it speaks and this week it sent me to the Tricycle to see Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West.
And sho’nuff, it’s a stone cold classic. This production premiered at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow last year and whilst it may have taken a while to transfer to London, we should be grateful indeed that it has for Phillip Breen marshals some extraordinary stage work by Eugene O’Hare and Alex Ferns as a pair of dichotomous brothers who represent the split in America itself. The well-put-together Austin is a family man who is an aspiring screenwriter on the cusp of a breakthrough deal in Hollywood, whilst Lee is an altogether more primal spirit, a drifter and a petty thief more at home in the Mojave Desert. When they meet for the first time in five years whilst house-sitting for their ma, sparks inevitably fly.
The way they fly is predictable at first, the slide back into childhood rhythms comes easily, the bullying Lee has a bruising physicality in Ferns’ quick-tempered older brother and there’s a squealing predictability to the way in which O’Hare’s younger sibling quickly acquiesces when the going gets tough. But as tables are turned and surprises unleashed, a whole world of chaos is unleashed in this SoCal suburb which is breath-taking in its tension. Breen captures this unravelling with pinpoint precision, even in the throes of the toast-based madness (has to be seen to be believed, don’t go to this play hungry!) Lee’s chilling stare and Austin’s masterful way with words remind of the cold intensity at the heart of their struggle.
Max Jones’ set frames the show in a deliberately cinematic way, scenes are broken up with the closing of lens shutters, Andrea J Cox’s sound design provides a relentless soundtrack of crickets and coyotes that speaks of the wildness of the emotional terrain being navigated here, and Tina MacHugh’s lighting is just astonishing with its vivid hues ramping up the tension in unexpected but most effective ways. The shards of dark humour that flash through the show equally keep us pleasingly wrong-footed and as a titanic final battle leaves us as breathless (though perhaps not quite as sweat-sodden) as the brothers, there’s no doubting the furious intent that lies at the heart of the division here and across the US.