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National Anthems
by Lizzie Loveridge

Why? Because I care about what I own?
--- Arthur Reed
National Anthems
Kevin Spacey as Ben, Mary stuart Masterson as Leslie and Steven Weber as Arthur. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Dennis McIntyre's 1988 play National Anthems is the third to be staged by the new regime at the Old Vic under actor-artistic director Kevin Spacey. It is undoubtedly a showcase for Spacey's considerable stage talent which some of us were fortunate to see in The Iceman Cometh when he all but cleaned up the major London acting awards. But and here's the rub, Dennis McIntyre was no Eugene O'Neill. However the play does have some serious points to make about the materialism of late twentieth century society at the expense of humanity, and the acting throughout is superb.

A huge flag, the stars and stripes, the quintessential symbol of things American, is hung across the stage like a makeshift stage curtain. Here I am sitting two seats away from Pierce Brosnan and about to see the great Kevin Spacey onstage. You can forgive me for thinking that I have died and gone to heaven. A parallel strikes me, National Anthems has more product endorsements than the latest James Bond films. The set is wonderful: the sitting room of a large American house with Italian leather sofas and designer furniture. The windows are swagged and swathed in what interior designers curiously describe as window dressing, not curtains you understand but pieces of fabric twisted and pleated and draped around three sides of the window, pure ornament.

Set in Detroit's suburbs in the home of aspiring middle class couple, Leslie and Arthur Reed (Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Weber), National Anthems contrasts the life of these "yuppies" with that of their uninvited party guest, fireman Ben Cook (Kevin Spacey). Ben has less money, fewer social contacts than the Webers who are ostentatious about their imported porcelain, their Irish linen, their German cars, their Danish Hi Fi system . However Ben has his fifteen minutes of fame in an article in the newspaper about his disobeying orders to rescue a woman from a blazing building.

When McIntyre strips his characters down to their bare bones, both men are very competitive; like sportsmen they have an overpowering desire to win. Weber, the tax haven lawyer in his nineteen hundred dollar suit, plays a relentless game eventually crushing Ben Cook. Although the two men recreate tackles on the football field, it is words which deliver the final blows to Cook's self esteem. Directed by David Grindley who was responsible for the revival of that 1977 English play about social mores, Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, National Anthems is less tragic, less cathartic and less bitingly comic but less dated.

The upside of this play is some wonderful acting. Spacey is mesmerising whether gossiping and divulging intimate details about the neighbours or fast talking in the quick response drinking game, "The Name of the Game is " or when facing full on to the audience, slowly masticating a shrimp puff and staring out at us vacantly and round eyed. Steven Weber is strung, every sinew bristling with the need to be first, unpleasant as only lawyers can be. Mary Stuart Masterson is almost wasted here. Her role as Leslie is to be very, very nice in that anodyne society hostess way but she comes to ridiculous life as a caricature high kicking cheerleader when supporting her husband's football moves. "Just bring home the dream Arthur", she says. At the end of the play Leslie partially explains her own insecurity, the background to why she has to keep everything clean and pristine in the house.

The men in a comic dialogue try to best each other's anecdotes of just how tough college football was whether in Cook's Pittsburgh or Reed's Detroit. The comedy is pretty near the surface for most of the play but the tragic end is not just Ben Cook's but also for the Reeds. Arthur realises how dead his life is now compared to when he played ball and listened to the music of Credence Clearwater Revival and the Stones.

The exciting news at the Old Vic is that Jennifer Ehle will play Tracy Lord to Spacey's Dexter in the upcoming revival of The Philadelphia Story from the beginning of May and that next season Spacey will play Richard II directed by Trevor Nunn.

National Anthems
Written by Dennis McIntyre
Directed by David Grindley

Starring: Kevin Spacey
With: Mary Stuart Masterson, Steven Weber
Designed by Jonathan Felsom
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6628
Booking to 23rd April 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th February 2005 performance at the Old Vic, The Cut, Waterloo London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
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