Glengarry Glen Ross – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Writer: David Mamet

Director: Sam Yates

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Four glib and fast-talking salesmen are increasingly desperate to sell what is frankly undesirable real estate to unsuspecting prospects. Their worldview is concentrated on getting to the top of the office leaderboard and winning a Cadillac. They’ll do anything to clinch the deal. But their fates are also in the hands of office manager Williamson. They despise him – and the feeling is entirely mutual it would seem – even as they rely on him to provide them with the leads they pursue with the most successful salesmen getting the premium leads.

David Mamet’s play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and nominated for four Tonys, winning one. Its 2005 Broadway revival was nominated for six Tonys, winning two. This version opened in the West End in 2017 and now sets out on a national tour

The first act is set in a local Chinese restaurant, a neutral zone where discussions can be held and plots hatched. It’s heavily episodic, showing three glimpses into the lives, beliefs and needs of the men. It’s written in ‘Mamet speak’, Mamet’s style of quickfire dialogue with an edge that director Sam Yates takes full advantage of to build tension and inject humour. We meet Levene (Mark Benton), a salesman down on his luck as he pleads with Williamson (Scott Sparrow) for better leads to work. Williamson at first appears to be a jobsworth but his true colours quickly come to the fore as he tries to negotiate a kickback from Levene in return for favours and seems genuinely to enjoy Levene’s discomfiture when he simply can’t afford Williamson’s price. Benton hits just the right note as the wheedling salesman, using all the tools in his armoury while Sparrow injects a seam of nastiness into Williamson as he seems to toy with Levene.

Then there’s Dave Moss (Denis Conway) and George Aaronow (Wil Johnson) – they discuss, at first hypothetically, breaking into the office and stealing the premium leads. There is some stupendous dialogue here as they discuss exactly what they’re doing: are they talking about it, or maybe they’re talking about it? Or perhaps they are merely speaking about it? Johnson shows Aaronow as a defeated man, one who seems to have allowed Moss to steamroller him, while the undercurrent of desperation in both men’s demeanour is brought to the fore.

Finally before the interval, the smooth-talking and high-performing Ricky Roma (Nigel Harman) gives an object lesson in playing on a prospect’s insecurities to close a sale with James Lingk (James Staddon). Harman brings a core of steel to Roma, even as he is buttering up Lingk: one doesn’t know whether to admire, fear or despise him. Staddon, however, ensures that Lingk deserves our sympathy at being played so expertly. He will later visit the office desperate to be released from his obligations after mature reflection with his wife: even then, he is manipulated and it’s not clear what his future holds.

Next day and we’re in the office – in the company of a police officer because a robbery has taken place. The whole place is in disarray and the precious leads and signed contracts are gone. Each man is separately interviewed as we watch the others trying to cope with potential loss of income.

There’s no happy ending here, just different levels and manifestations of despondency for each man, as well as different ways of coping, albeit with laugh-out-loud lines.

Yates has ensured that this is a fast-moving roller-coaster, revealing the insecurities of all of the men and their various ways of coping. The acting is, without exception, first-rate. The cast ensures that we understand each character’s depths and motivations. Chiara Stephenson’s sets are detailed recreations of early 1980s Chinese restaurant and office, while the harsh lighting changes as scenes change keep us focused.

Glengarry Glen Ross pulls no punches in its portrayal of men who will let their despair lead them to morally questionable places. In particular, there is some very strong language which, together with the themes that it explores, means it’s not suitable for young children. Overall, a sometimes uncomfortable watch, but one that will stay with you as we maybe look into the darker side of our own motivations.

Runs Until 23 February 2019 and on tour  | Image: Marc Brenner

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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