Review: TRUE WEST (Vaudeville Theatre)

Sam Shepard’s modern classic arrives in the West End for the very first time, poignantly marking the playwright’s first major London production since his death last Summer. TRUE WEST follows Austin (played by Kit Harington) a neurotic Hollywood screenwriter staying in his old family home in the California desert. Whilst Austin works on a script sold to a major movie producer, the arrival of his unpredictable brother Lee (Johnny Flynn) brings with him huge consequences. Now considered one of the great American plays of our time, this major revival opens at the Vaudeville Theatre.

This is an explosive production of an explosive play. Shepard’s text is a treasure trove of themes and layers for directors and actors to explore. On one hand, it’s a righteous comedy about siblings at war, on another, it’s a play about exploring the tragedy of human beings. The director Matthew Dunster balances this perfectly. If you saw how he nailed the humour in HANGMEN then you know how formidable he is at pulling off laughter. But when Shepard calls for his audience to care and listen, it becomes incredibly earned. It’s a play of authenticity and existentiality, perfectly observed through the lens of the American dream. However, in what is a pitched perfect production, it’s the performances that will deservedly be remembered.

Game of Thrones star Kit Harington plays the neurotic screenwriter Austin. Hiding frustration behind a pair of glasses and a retro moustache, his performance is totally surprising in the best way possible. In the first half, Harington plays the gawky, awkward nature of the character to a tee. In a play starring a mega bankable star, it’s admittedly strange seeing him kind of blend into the background in the first half. But as the play progresses and we see Austin’s transformation as he and his brother’s dynamic switches, he’s electric to watch. In a boisterously hilarious play, his tender monologue to his brother in the second half held the audience mesmerised, Harington utterly grasped the quiet tragedy of the moment, and of humans themselves.

Opposite Harington, Johnny Flynn is outstanding as Lee. An underrated actor, Flynn is uncontained and totally unpredictable in the part. It is, in fairness, a gift of a role from Sam Shepard. But the intensity and verve that Flynn brings to Lee makes him a joy to watch. Like Harington, his dynamic shift in the second act shows the natural ability they have as actors. It’s especially brilliant, following their quiet almost stoic lead performances in TV shows Game of Thrones and Lovesick respectively (both incredible television by the way), to see them unleashed as actors. It’s a joy to watch. I also fully suspect that if the actors switched roles in the play, they’d be equally mesmerising.

The interaction between the actors is beautiful. The boys are magnetic. Even if you take nothing from the plot itself, the chemistry, banter and fizzing energy between Flynn and Harington make this production soar. As they settle into their roles they will only get better. If there’s any justice, they both should be remembered come awards time.

As Shepard’s play hurtles towards its magnificent climax, we see Flynn and Harington reverting back to a child-like dynamic. These characters are fully grown adults, but the brothers spar, bully and torment to each other, as they would have done much younger. But the stakes are raised so much higher. Lee tells his brother, ‘Family people. Brothers. They kill each other in the heat.’ In the moment, the lines are blurred between teasing threats and genuine frighten. It’s gems like these in the play that Dunster, along with Flynn and Harington, capture perfectly.

Jon Bausor’s set perfectly evokes a stylistic caricature of a 1980s American home. Its distorted features reflecting the strange relationship of Shepard’s warring brothers. It gives way to a magnificent moment in the second half that shouldn’t be spoiled.

This revival of TRUE WEST is one of the highlights of this theatre season. The performances of Flynn and Harington elevate this production to thrilling heights. It’s been thought that Shepard’s play is one of the greatest American pieces of the modern era, and seeing this version, absolutely solidifies this idea. This performance of TRUE WEST is unmissable.

RATING: ★★★

TRUE WEST runs at London’s Vaudeville Theatre to 23rd February 2019

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