Theatre review: A Life in the Theatre, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Enjoyable production of David Mamet’s witty play is a highlight of Camden Fringe

�David Mamet’s witty and moving play about life backstage has to be among the most enjoyable of the astonishing variety of productions being staged at the Camden Fringe this month.

Based on Mamet’s own short experience as an actor, it consists of a series of very funny linked sketches set in a dressing-room shared by two actors.

There is virtually no plot – the audience is plunged into a sequence of situations and confrontations, each potentially the subject of a complete play, which are then tossed away, undeveloped.

This one-act piece is tightly and skillfully directed by Zoe Ford. The set, cleverly designed by Suzi Lombardelli, is a typical scruffy dressing-room in any provincial theatre, which can also transform itself into a variety of stages, in a variety of theatres, as demanded by the action (although the significance of the partially-visible mobiles eluded me). Assisted by the convincing lighting (Fraser Connolly), the actors move effortlessly from one venue to another.

Such a loosely constructed play requires consummate acting skills. No problem – both John Fleming as Robert and Duncan Williams as John handle Mamet’s dialogue, and its intricate subtext, with confidence. Their timing is perfect and their acting subtle or forthright as the moment demands.

Each man is haunted by the insecurity common in their profession. Robert, the older, masks this by endlessly commenting, criticizing and advising the younger man’s performances.

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John, apparently confident and successful socially, at first defers to Robert’s knowledge and experience. But soon the thinly-veiled criticisms and all-too-obvious envy start to rankle.

There follows a series of hilarious confrontations and disasters, both in the privacy of the dressing-room and on stage in excerpts from numerous plays. The night I was present, the audience rocked with laughter.

But Robert is older and lonelier and aware that his career is going nowhere. His apparent dominance, it emerges, covers a very real despair – then the audience stopped laughing.

* A Life in the Theatre was at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village, N6, until August 17