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 The Theatreguide.London Review

True West
Tricycle Theatre  Autumn 2014

Like all his best plays, Sam Shepard's drama is about brothers, about fathers and sons, about the American past and about the American myth.

It is also frequently very funny and occasionally harrowing in its emotional nakedness. And Phillip Breen's new production at the Tricycle captures just about all of this. 

Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter working feverishly on an original script that will be his big break when his black sheep brother Lee, a petty thief and desert rat, appears out of nowhere. 

Figuring that writing has to be a whole lot easier than breaking and entering, Lee tosses out an idea for a film in the hearing of Austin's producer, who is so enamoured of it that he wants Austin to drop his own project and collaborate with his brother. 

That's where a lot of the play's comedy and satire comes, in the parody producer and in Austin's frustration and frantic attempts at revenge. The fact that Lee's scenario is a western, and in some ways the ultimate western, nothing but an extended chase scene, brings in one of Sam Shepard's favourite themes and metaphors, the idealised American past as a contrast to the actual present. 

Which is the true West, the myth of cowboys and Indians that may never have existed or the Hollywood fiction factory that does? Stories that reverberate even if they've become clichés, or Identikit cities and neighbourhoods you don't recognise when you return to them? 

Shepard is not an intellectual writer, and these questions are not stated openly as Shaw or David Hare might present them. Instead, he sets his play in an anonymous modern house on the edge of the desert, and inserts a comic anecdote about the brothers' father that whispers things about a lost past.

And in the play's final moments he creates a chilling theatrical metaphor as the myth comes alive and absorbs the reality within it. 

Phillip Breen's production takes its time warming up, giving some of the early exchanges between the brothers the pause-filled sense of the unspoken more characteristic of Pinter than Shepard, but that atmosphere is not inappropriate, and helps give a solid realism to the characters. 

Eugene O'Hare lets us sense from the start that there's something missing in the seemingly successful Austin. At first we – and he – may think it's hunger for success, but O'Hare lets us come to see that there is something in his brother's wildness that he envies, tries to emulate and begs to have shared with him. 

Alex Ferns gives Lee all the menace you could ask for, along with a quality I haven't seen other actors bring to the role. His Lee may be street smart and sharp-witted within his areas of criminal expertise, but Ferns shows that any new thoughts take a while on their way into or out of his brain. This adds a refreshing comic touch without reducing the character's danger or his half-symbolic power as an outlaw. 

Steven Elliot is allowed to make the Hollywood producer a bit too much of a cartoon, and Barbara Rafferty has little to do in a brief appearance. 

The success of the play, comic and dramatic, lies in the playwright's extraordinary myth-making powers and in the two strong central performances.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  True West - Tricycle Theatre 2014

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