True West - Review by Simon Jenner

New Venture possess real form with American drama, and this is a vintage production. Sam Shepard’s 1980 True West comes just after Buried Child and before Fool For Love and A Lie of the Mind.

Directed by Stephen O’Shea, with Simon Glazier’s lovingly detailed kitchen in the Upstairs, and lighting used to moody and finally spooky effect by Strat Mastoris and Margarita Steinberg it underlines how this space often brings out an extra notch in productions. Tim Metcalfe’s sound design, so crucial in establishing the country and western mood, is supported by a team and it shows: ideal calibration, not a blast as can happen. Like the distressed costumery, even Kasha Goodenough’s batty parent costumes breathe denim and chiffon in bizarre conjunction.

This is spare Shepard, only four characters. And move over Baby Jane, it’s a classic sibling fight, pitching a flip-over in roles between drifter and petty thief Lee and his younger successful brother, screenwriter Austin down to look after their mother’s house in California. Its bleak comedy has a way of making you laugh at what might be blue murder. You incidentally wonder what on earth their mother’s doing vacationing in Alaska for instance: never mind. The pot plants fail to get watered after Lee arrives. The father’s watered somewhere else, a terminal alcoholic.

There’s worse. Stuart Warwick’s dangerously psychotic Lee covets all his suave younger brother enjoys, and whilst menacing and cajoling Austin moves in on of all people Austin’s agent Saul Kimmer, the seasoned Martin Ryan producing a craggily nuanced drawl of big bucks. Kimmer’s slippery man seems hard-boiled but is more credulous than anyone else. He’s bizzarely charmed by Lee, whose entrapment takes the form of inviting him to a round of golf, something Austin’s reduced to caddy for, Shepard delighting in the vulnerability American men display over their lack of authenticity: Austin by possessing none of these dubious qualities nor esteeming them; Kimmer for being impressed with Lee’s gross display. But Lee’s also jealous of Austin’s sedentary old typewriter. Later on it comes into cultural collision with those golf clubs and neither win.

Kimmer’s also dazzled by Lee’s ‘authentic’ hokum western. So much so that he ditches Austin’s love story in favour of Lee’s preposterous plotline. We find out how much when Austin reads out part of it. Two men chasing each other over an adulterous affair switch from exhausted cars to their horses somehow in trailers behind them all along. Shepard’s sense of the absurd – that Kimmer falls for it – is only matched by logic whereby Kimmer ditches all his hard-boiled caution and Lee’s the one with the advance, Austin hired for a flat fee to write up the script. Stranger things have happened out there.

This is where Will Cooper’s Austin comes even more into his own. Playing off Warwick’s psychotic Lee is a gift and Cooper shows how Austin moves from nerves to temper to bravura emulation of his brother’s thieving, to something more Lee-like; he runs a virtuoso gamut Austin never promises. It’s an outstanding performance even in this company. You’ll have to wait for the great coup in the second act. Catastrophe theory doesn’t do it better.

Cooper’s more than up for this. His every watchful movement, the way he arcs his voice, continually ratcheting up his own transformative move, down to his collapses and rolling around, make this the outstanding performance in an exceptionally strong cast. It’s completed by Janice Jones’ distracted Mom entering late on, who simply refuses to comprehend the mayhem she returns to and vanishes blithely as unspeakable events transpire around her. Her reaction completes the play.

The plot through all Shepard’s pauses, arrests and lateral crawl to coherence, never quite lets up. But there are superb pauses where Shepard’s character blow through their own roles, as if we’re taking five from the given plot and seeing the characters released into a strange real-time eddy of themselves. In reality, every calibration is beautifully poised over disaster. Thus most touching is the drunken bonding at the end of Act One where the two brothers come together over their father. It’s a necessary still point, a rare communing, a glimpse into what might have been. Another winning piece of Americana from NVT, now the go-to on the south coast for anything pointing true west.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published - fringereview.co.uk