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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Vaudeville

By Matt Wolf

  Christian Slater/PH: Johan Persson

Is there another actor besides Christian Slater who's made such an onstage art of lowering his eyebrows? First in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest across two separate West End runs, and now in the world premiere of Michael Lesslie's stage adaptation of the Kevin Spacey movie Swimming With Sharks, Slater gives us a well-practiced facial leer as a sort of theatrical slide show all its own. As Randle P. McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest, Slater ensured that his deliberate tic worked wonders, encapsulating a character at knowing odds with society while tipping the hat to the part's Oscar-winning forbear, Jack Nicholson. On this latest occasion, however, it's all but impossible not to interpret Slater's visage as some kind of implicit commentary on a script that deserves credit for upping the ante of straight plays when it comes to a musicals-heavy West End. And also succeeds in.. well, that's about it.

The purposelessness of the enterprise could have been anticipated: Is it really news at this late date that Hollywood is full of very mean people who treat their subordinates like proverbial youknowwhat? To some extent, the real surprise would be a play that showed just how sweet and minnow-like these putative sharks really are. But that, of course, would fly in the face of a time-honored truth about Lotusland venality that looks destined to outlast us all. The task, then, is to reinvent the belligerent wheel - exactly the challenge met magnificently by David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, which will be revived at the Old Vic in 2008 with - guess who? - Spacey in a leading role. For the moment, we've got a version for the stage of a cult Spacey movie that doesn't even feel Mamet lite. Swimming With Sharks is copious, repetitive bark and precious little bite , and Slater comes at the material gamely but self-defeatingly: he's an amiable frat boy - that's what served him so well in Cuckoo's Nest - not a figure capable of engendering real fear. And without the sense that Buddy Ackerman has been put on Hollywood's earth in order to destroy, there's neither sense nor satisfaction to the arc of a narrative that comes off as a three-dimensional version of one oof the sillier movies whose posters (Hammertooth, Skin Farm) are seen adorning Dick Bird's sterile, platformed set.

Playing the hapless office worker who bears the brunt of Buddy's venom ( I convince babies they need breast reductions, the boss boasts proudly of himself), Matt Smith can't enliven a role in which one could imagine a younger Slater being more easily at home. While the part casts Smith as the Anne Hathaway to Slater's Meryl Streep, the role of Guy is so dependent on reversals of an increasingly preposterous nature that you tend to tune him out, though the capable Smith's ability to rattle off Academy Award winners over the years should serve him well in the next Oscar office pool. The star trio is completed by Helen Baxendale as the bearer of a film that one can't imagine her ever putting Buddy's way. Far more imaginable, I'm afraid, is the abiding contempt shown toward the play's primary female character, an attitude with which one feels Buddy would empathize himself. At such moments, one has to wonder whether Swimming with Sharks is a critique of the Hollywood ethos or merely a perpetuation of it. Now there's a question to give even those famous Slater eyebrows pause.


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