True West

Editor LOTTIE UNWIN sees True Potential often realised in the sweatily appropriate beer-sodden den of the Corpus Playroom.

Alex MacKeith Charlie Parham Corpus Playroom Lottie Unwin True West

Corpus Playroom, 8th-12th March, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Charlie Parham


I keep calling it True Grit because the Theatre Guide Dog has taken hold on my imagination. Nonetheless, neither True West, nor True Grit, which both sound like brand names for low-budget denim, seem suitable titles for the play.

The production of True West at the Playrooms is an ingeniously directed, well acted, broadly convincing two hours of theatre. There was nothing bootleg about it at all.

It tells the story of, well, in the words of the promotional postcard ‘a writer’ about to make his break ‘in Hollywood’, whose brother, a thief, ‘returns from the heart of the desert’, when ‘it doesn’t take long for the American Dream to spiral into a nightmare’.

What really happens, minus the press-speak, is much more gripping. Two brothers both stubbornly defining themselves in relation to or rejection of the terms of their childhoods face one another after a long time. As they compete, they deconstruct each other’s identities, with the end result of their mother returning home to find them wrestling, both reduced to the same violent man.

Photographs by Amy Jeffs

At least, that’s nearly what happens. In what is at heart a two-hander, Lee ‘the theif’ (Alex MacKeith) and Charlie Parham as the ‘writer’, Austin, are almost brilliant.

The downside of great acting is that it shows up the less successful moments. MacKeith as the angry, lost and proud brother was intruigingly opaque. Though this could be a virtue; his flickers between rage and sinister rationale rendered inexplicable to an audience who weren’t allowed to understand him. Parham blossomed, to use an inappropriate verb, into a broken man in the second half, but some awkward sighs splintered the realism of the opening discussions. So when he makes the crucial decision to go back to the desert with Lee, I neither understood why nor believed him.

It’s a cliché to say that the Corpus is a difficult location, but perhaps an original claim to say that it was perfect for a production. Or rather, that Parham’s direction expertly exploited the intimacy of the L-shaped cave. With beer splattering around set and sweat dripping off the leads’ brows the atmosphere was all-consuming.

Claudia Blunt as the mother and Amrou Al-Kadhi as Saul, the Hollywood producer, play subsidiary roles. With wooden acting they’re just plywood cut-outs watching over the intensity of the production’s central partnership. However, surprisingly the combination of the two styles works.  If it’s a directorial decision, it might be another of Parham’s flirtations with genius, focusing the audience on the brothers and their emotional crises, but I couldn’t be sure it was intentional.

The point is, it’s an example of the problem at the heart of this week’s excellent production of True West – in a play with a title that sounds like it might be rough and ready, there is so much potential that you really want it to be perfect.  It only just falls short of the mark.