Sunday, May 19

American Buffalo – King’s Arms, Salford

As a reviewer, five star shows appear in many guises; last night I sat in the cavernous surroundings of Manchester Opera House with 1,919 other hardy souls watching Sir Ian McKellen give a bravura performance as Falstaff in a four hour adaptation of Henry IV. Now, less than 24 hours later a sold out audience of just 35 are privileged to witness a very different, but equally compelling production in entirely different surroundings.

Lisa Connor combines the job of Director of the Greater Manchester Fringe with her role as owner of The Kings Arms in Salford, in the latter capacity she has pulled off something of a coup by tempting legendary Director David Thacker to stage a production of David Mamet’s ‘American Buffalo’ in the tiny theatre that nestles above this backstreet Salford boozer. Thacker made his bones staging the works of Miller, O’Neill and the greats of American theatre in a career that has taken him from the RSC to the Young Vic as well as a career defining spell as Artistic Director at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. He brings every ounce of this long experience to bear to tell a tale of a planned robbery that leads to disastrous consequences, drawing out outstanding performances from the three cast members for whom Mamet’s dialogue heavy exposition is a dream come true.

Don (Colin Connor) runs a junk shop in Midwest America where their detritus of the world ends up, Bob (John O’Neill) is a young junkie drawn to both the shop and to Don as a surrogate father figure in his own lonely and troubled life. Together they hatch a a scheme to rob a collector of a valuable “American Buffalo’, a valuable nickel coin that Don has inadvertently sold for less than its market value. The plan is hijacked by Teach (Dave MacCreedy), a sociopathic acquaintance of Don and from that point the evening descends into chaos and tragedy.

Photo: Shay Rowan

Around this slender plot, Mamet weaves a tale of toxic masculinity, the smallness of scope and scale of the story allows the characters to gradually grow and reveal their faults and foibles. His dialogue has been referred to as ‘profane poetry’ and indeed the script is littered with swearing and violent imagery,  but he argues that this form of communication displays real truth and acts as an ‘iambic pentameter of the underclass’, where lack of vocabulary prevents more overt communication. His writing is simultaneously a curse and a gift for actors and directors; impossibly difficult to learn and make look naturalistic on stage, but sublimely beautiful when executed successfully. The small stage is set in the round with the junk shop milieu stunningly realised, the audiences eyes being constantly drawn to the exquisite detail from their perches almost in amongst the bric a brac, a wholly convincing tableau against which to tell the story.

Thacker allows the writing to breathe, the short staccato sentences and oft repeated dialogue gradually builds and slowly allows the plot to emerge in a naturalistic style. The meandering conversations, seemingly random at first, coalesce to build a wholly convincing picture of each of the main protagonists and the world they inhabit. O’Neill invests Bob with a need for approval centring around his desire to please Don, his willingness to undertake a robbery wholly beyond his capabilities illustrating both his innocence and gullibility. Don sees himself as a wheeler dealer but the junk shop reality around him denotes the truth,  he is a failure looking for a big score to shore up the image of a wise sage he portrays to Bob. Connor is a physically dominating presence on the small stage but manages to convey his weakness beautifully in the face of the smaller but much more menacing Teach. In this role MacCreedy is constantly on the move, pacing and restless, a dam of nervous energy that eventually bursts into a torrent of violence and fury. 

The writing of Mamet incorporates the classical style of Arthur Miller with something of Damon Runyon in its study of small time criminality; sprinkle on a touch of Tarantino and add a pinch of Pinter and the recipe is a stone cold classic. When brought to life by a superb cast and a great director at the top of his game, this is must see theatre which anyone fortunate enough to attend will not quickly forget.

Playing until 23th March,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 15th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.