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A CurtainUp London Review
A Life In the Theatre


A scene like a little walnut, meaty on the inside and tight all round.
--- Robert
A Life in the Theatre
Patrick Stewart as Robert
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

After Lindsay Posner's clever production of Sexual Peversity in Chicago seen in London, we were entitled to expect more of the same in this revival of Mamet's 1977 play about the acting profession. Instead, I found A Life in the Theatre disappointing, the wit as thin as Patrick Stewart's hair. There are twenty six scenes in eighty five minutes, some lasting barely more than a sentence but for which we have to endure the clunking scene changes of the dressing room backstage being wheeled on and off.

Mamet's two hander examines the relationship between two actors in a small town American repertory theatre. Robert (Patrick Stewart) is an old hand hose career is on the wane -- a luvvie, soaking up praise, ultra-sensitive about his performance. Joshua Jackson as John is a young blood, still learning his craft, who has promise and talent. Mamet takes us through several snapshot scenes of actual plays that the two men are playing from the trenches of the First World War to a shipwreck Hemingway style to mock Chekhov ending with a disastrous scene in an operating theatre. True we do get a picture of the terrible life it is to be an actor in rep. In between we see the men in their dressing room and at the gym, almost always discussing theatre or their current production. Some of what they say is amusing, pretentious and self absorbed or plain bitchy. There isn't enough time to get involved in the decline of Stewart's character to feel sympathy for his insecurity.

Whilst Stewart is obviously the more experienced actor (he was RSC trained long before the days of StarTrek), he has to play someone losing his power, forgetting his lines and breaking the zip on his trousers. Joshua Jackson making his stage debut is fine, he underplays his role well with the callow insensitivity of youth, but together the two are mismatched. Neither causes the other to spark into life and I found it hard to believe in what is meant to be their growing friendship and rivalry. I do think that an actor of Stewart's calibre should have been able to hold his American accent for more than two lines.

This play could have been and should have been so much better given spirited performances, lively direction and some tightening up of the set pieces in the script. I liked Robert whining about theatre critics, "they don't even buy a ticket, " he complains. True.

A Life in the Theatre strikes me as a cynical attempt to exploit two television personalities' fame by drawing into the audience (40 for the top seats) people drawn there only "to see someone who is on television". It has succeeded to some extent, the auditorium is fairly well sold, the audience appreciative, giggling at the weakest jokes and adulatory when Joshua Jackson (formerly in Dawson'sCreek) takes off his shirt or Patrick Stewart says "Fuck" which he does a few times. But is it a welcome addition to the London stage. No! No! No! This show is more meretricious than meritorious.

A Life in the Theatre
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Starring: Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson
Designed by Giles Cadle
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Running time: One hour twenty five minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1101
Booking to 23rd April 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd February 2005 performance at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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