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Glengarry Glen Ross

by on 16 April 2019

Caveat Emptor

Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

ATG, Act Productions, Glass Half Full Productions and Rupert Gavin, Richmond Theatre, until 20th April, then on tour until 4th May

A review by Matthew Grierson

The secret of a successful magic trick, I understand, is distracting the audience from the sleight of hand involved. But if sales is a kind of magic, then the customer can just as easily be distracted by being told the mechanism by which the deal itself is made. After all, if the salesman is telling you how he is doing it, he can’t be untrustworthy – can he?

The deals to which we are party in Sam Yates’s slick revival of Glengarry Glen Ross have exactly this quality about them. When we first encounter Nigel Harman’s mesmeric Ricky Roma, he is deconstructing the art of the sale over a drink in a Chinese restaurant, telling us how it depends on living in the here and now – as his own performance demands it does – and that one needn’t nurse remorse about what one wants or how one gets it. It doesn’t matter that what he’s talking may be BS: he absolutely sells it.

More to the point, he absolutely sells us the idea of Ricky as a seller. James Staddon as the hapless James Lingk hangs on his words as much as we do, and it gradually becomes clear Ricky is talking his fellow diner into a deal. As we’re reminded, ‘Always be closing.’ And as the first act closes, the lights dim and Harman seems positively Mephistophelean.

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Each of the scenes in the first half has something of this dynamic. The preceding exchange, between sales colleagues Dave (Denis Conway) and George (Wil Johnson) in the same restaurant, seems likewise to be a discussion of the way their workplace works, but the former is becoming increasingly apoplectic and taking the latter into incredulity along with him … Only it turns out that Dave is inveigling George into being a stooge in more than just comic terms. Again, Conway and Johnson sell this relationship beautifully, Dave’s diatribe, replete with throwaway bigotry, conjuring nervous laughter from the Richmond audience.

But the sell to which we are first exposed is the hardest of all: Mark Benton’s Shelly is trying to convince office manager John Williamson – Scott Sparrow, maintaining an icy and functional calm – that he is worthy of the premium leads that will restore his place on the chalkboard league table. Shelly’s struggle to negotiate his way back to success works in inverse correlation with Benton’s capacity to affect us; to put it another way, the actor’s stock is as high as his character’s is low.

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Chiara Stephenson’s impressive but otherwise empty restaurant set, in which all these scenes take place, concentrates the essential loneliness of the salesman’s art, the valiant or vain struggle of the patter against consumer resistance in the era of Reaganomics. It also allows the characters to sharpen themselves against one another for the second act, which returns us to their real-estate office the next morning, after it has been broken in to. It’s an impressive change of set for the interval, although given that it’s no more messy than a number of offices I’ve worked in, I wondered whether the stagehands would do better to take less rather than more care about how they put it together.

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As the pairs of the first half come into play against one another, we witness new aspects to each of them. Buoyed up by a successful morning’s sales, Shelly is now confident enough to tear Dave and John to pieces. His re-enactment of the deal he has closed again makes play of the fact that he has let the customers in on the secret of the sales. Why, even Benton’s glasses twinkle in the lights with the recollection of it. Such is his conviction that even Ricky marvels at it, believing he still has tricks to learn from the older man. But when Dave returns, Harman and Conway are circling each other like wild animals to give their machismo room to preen.

The salesmen are now competing not only with one another but with the law, though, in the form of Officer Baylen (Zephryn Taitte), whose height allows him to exert a presence beyond his limited dialogue. That presence is in turn used to emphasise the power of both Harman’s performance, when Ricky squares up to the cop, and the brilliant diffidence of Benton’s, when he equivocates between submitting to interview and maintaining a ruse set-up with his colleague.

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The play’s careful balance of tragedy and comedy is apparent here. Mistimed interventions from John and Baylen move the plot along, forcing Ricky to try to keep the reluctant Lingk on the chain – Harman is never more sincere than when he is selling – while Shelly edges round the room as though in a farce. Careful stagecraft does not labour the conflict Mamet has cleverly dramatised between the ruthless free market and the rule of law.

If the blocking can attain the balletic, the delivery of dialogue can at times be machinic; but the full emotive force of it is paid out by the unfortunate customer as Lingk departs, distraught not by the fact that he has betrayed his wife but that he has let down Ricky himself, whose full skill and power are again thrown into relief.

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As the drama draws to its own closure, Ricky laments that the profession is a dying breed. Sadly, rumours of the death of the salesman are greatly exaggerated: 35 years after the play was originally put on we have a mountebank in the White House and daily talk on this side of the Pond about the need to get a deal done. Mamet’s script acquires particular new resonance in that it turns on the theft of customers’ personal details, a concern only more pertinent in the age of GDPR. Once more, the production is effective on this point for having not overemphasised it.

Of course, Glengarry Glen Ross’s true sleight of hand is that it sets up a plot that plays out, but not as we expect it to – let’s just say that a poor salesman makes for a poor thief. Mamet may have sold us a dummy, but on the strength of this evening I’m not cooling off any time soon.

Matthew Grierson
April 2019

Photography by Marc Brenner

From → Drama, Reviews

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    This review has particular resonance as found myself caught up in such a situation last year: lesson learned, you’re never too old to learn new tricks! This is a great review, carefully structured and maintaining perfect balance between script, (insights in the art of selling, particularly the hard sell), performance, set and overall production. I only wish play was showing for another week, as it would have been high on my list to see.

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