True West at the Vaudeville Theatre: ‘a dark, resonant meditation on family, fear, and alienation’

Winter is here. And that means Sarah Gibbs reviews True West starring Kit Harington at the Vaudeville theatre.

Jon Snow really likes his toast. That is, screenwriter Austin, Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington’s character in Matthew Dunster’s production of True West, deeply appreciates scorched carbohydrates. The man’s contented sigh as he gazes at his stolen toasters signals a rare moment of peace in Sam Shepard’s claustrophobic work. Despite a somewhat predictable first act, both play and cast gain momentum and ultimately deliver a dark, resonant meditation on family, fear, and alienation.

The action begins with Austin at his typewriter. The screenwriter is house-sitting for his mother in Los Angeles while he drafts a new script; he hopes to pitch his idea to producer Saul (Donald Sage Mackay) and is working into the night. Seeking a change of atmosphere, he switches off the lamp and lights a candle. A figure suddenly becomes visible in the shadows, Austin’s brother, Lee (Johnny Flynn). The burglar and general ne’er-do-well has arrived to relieve the neighbourhood of its valuables, and, it seems, to disrupt Austin’s work. When Saul choses Lee’s script idea over his own, Austin begins to unravel; Los Angeles’s toasters are just a few of his victims.

Harington notes in the programme that he was eager to take on a project “with another actor that [he] respected,” and his chemistry with Flynn is intense, particularly as their personas—the straight-laced success and the wastrel—begin to invert. Harington’s panicky energy meets Flynn’s smiling menace, and great set pieces result: Austin, bespectacled and sporting “dad shorts,” toasting eighteen slices on his purloined appliances, Lee balancing on a stool while beating the typewriter with a golf club and burning his script in the waste basket. Flynn, who also composed the show’s threatening, tribal music, inhabits his volatile, unpredictable character to the point that he seems to be making up the dialogue as he goes. “Who wants to eat off Idaho?” he asks of his mother’s travel-themed plates. Both actors’ accent work is exceptional. Harington, in particular, deserves kudos; he nails a mix of California blandness and nasally mid-West intonation. Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown’s fight choreography is similarly first-rate. Austin and Lee’s final battle is savage, comic, and frighteningly real.

Kit Harrington, Donald Sage MacKay, and Johnny Flynn in True West.

While the production endeavours to fully realize the late Shepard’s vision—the playwright’s stage directions mandate even the type of plants that should dress the set—it is hobbled by the fact that elements of that vision are no longer fresh. The “loser-brother-screws-things-for-good-brother” narrative of the first act has appeared on stage and screen many times since the play premiered in 1980. While the second act upends expectations, the interest level is lower prior to the interval. Lee’s initially uninflected personality also contributes to the problem. In the first half, he is all id, and so intense that Flynn has few opportunities to modulate his performance. Ultimately, however, the play expands, taking in the sometimes vicious terrain of family, and the danger and allure of the American West. The cowboys of the West End prove fine company for an evening.


True West runs at the Vaudeville Theatre the 23rd February, 2019.

Feature and production photograph: Marc Brenner

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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