**** 4 out of 5 stars
Rhiannon D’Averc reviews the latest showing of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Last time Kit Harington took to the boards in London, the queues were so long that camping equipment was advisable. While the day tickets for True West were rather more accessible this time around, that was no reflection on the quality of the performance on offer.
Game of Thrones fans might have been hanging on every word from the curly-haired actor, but his character here is very far removed from Jon Snow indeed. Harrington plays Austin, a screenwriter who has successfully pitched a new film to a producer while looking after his mother’s house in the desert. Everything starts to unravel, however, with the arrival of his wild, bad brother, Lee. Two people could not be more dissimilar. Where Austin is a neatly-coiffed, smart, Ivy League-educated writer, Lee is a violent, angry, dirty thief. The start is somewhat slow to pick up: introduced to these warring siblings, we feel a gradual but steady rise in tension. When Lee pulls off the sabotage of the century to get his own story made into a film instead, Austin quickly goes off the rails – though by the interval we’re left simply waiting for the inevitable fistfight.
Which is why their return for the second half is such a pleasant surprise. Instead, we see a role reversal. Sensible and responsible Austin is now free to go on a drinking binge, while the barely literate Lee has to figure out how a typewriter works and come up with a screenplay.
What follows is dark comedy at a fine level. Whether destroying household objects with a golf club, buttering a full loaf’s worth of toast (don’t ask), or struggling with a seemingly never ending typewriter ribbon, the actors don’t stop until the end. Everything culminates in that hectic fight scene we’d all been waiting for – including an impressive deconstruction of the whole set which must be hell for the stagehands to put back together. And there’s also hell to pay when Mom gets home…
While Harington is the name putting people in seats, and while he does shine on stage, he is outdone by his partner. The best performance of the night comes from Johnny Flynn, who is note-perfect as the psychotic but sympathetic Lee. His facial expressions are a treat, telling us the inner motivations and thoughts of his character whilst simultaneously hiding them from the others stage.
Costume is played well. Characters are delineated clearly by their wardrobes, establishing simple stereotypes for the audience to understand from the get-go. As the story progresses, so do the outfits, painting a tale of desperation and envy. The hair and makeup department also do a meticulous job, with Harington’s hair descending from greased neatness to the wilder look that he is more known for as each progressive act moves on. All in all, a very fine production. While there has been some criticism from others of the set, which bends off at odd angles and later opens to the desert air, it seems a petty gripe to have. But then when a performance is as good as this, only petty criticisms are left.
True West at the Vaudeville Theatre, starring Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn, until 23rd February 2019.