first night

American Buffalo

Andrew Shires watches Phoenix Theatre Company take on a David Mamet classic.

 Phoenix Theatre Company's American Buffalo tells the story of pawn shop owner Don who is planning to steal back a possibly valuable buffalo coin he sold to a mysterious customer, as he now believes it may be worth more than the original asking price. He is aided in this by his assistant, the childlike Bobby, and his more violent impulsive friend Teach, who fears that Bobby will end up ruining the mission.

Director Liam Gill and AD Max Lindon should be praised for utilising the Pemberton Building to its full extent, allowing the audience to partake in the intimacy of the scenes onstage, making the events at the end genuinely shocking. The set was also very impressive, and Producers Sofya Grebenkina and Jess Siddell have gone full out in capturing the feel of an American pawn shop, with a plethora of random items, ranging from moose heads to tambourines scattered throughout the entire room, again keeping the audience invested in the action.

The highlight of the show for me were the performances of the three remarkable cast members. Angharad Phillips had perhaps the most difficult task in the form of the role of Teach, a male character, however through her intense physicality and characterisation, she created a performance that was both believable and slightly disturbing in places. Though her accent slightly dropped in places, leading to a couple of words being lost, her sheer talent more than made up for this.

Alex Marshall also gave an impressive performance as Bobby, capturing a sense of childlike innocence in the character that easily pulled in the audience’s sympathies. Though he probably had the smallest amount of stage time, his character was just as believable and developed as the others, which is testament to Marshall’s ability. Jack Usher gave an incredibly assured performance as Don, his physicality capturing both the character’s age and attitude from beginning to end, and his characterisation never dropping whether he was responding to one of Teach’s violent outbursts, or showing his more caring side in his concern for Bobby. The highlights of the show came from when all three actors were onstage together, playing off one another with apparent ease, such as at the climactic ending.

The main issue for me lay in the pacing of the performance. Throughout the whole thing lines came thick and fast, and though they were all intelligible, and the emotion behind the lines was evident, it was often very difficult to actually tell what was going on with regards to the story. Certain moments would have benefitted a great deal from allowing the actors and the plot to breathe, as no emphasis was placed on important plot points that would be relevant later over meaningless chatter between friends. Because of this, it was impossible to feel any sense of growing tension, and the first act which is seemingly meant to build up towards the climactic second act, dragged in places despite the fast pace. Other scenes, such as a brief conversation between Don and Teach about yoghurt, had the potential to be comedic, but they were breezed over too quickly to allow the lines to sink in and obtain the reaction from the audience. This left what is retrospectively a relatively simple plot, feeling convoluted and extremely difficult to follow at times.

American Buffalo has a great deal of potential, due to the three excellent actors and the impressively utilised performance space. With more focus on particular moments in the play, especially in the first act, it will be easier to obtain a clear sense of where the plot is going, and will inject the sense of tension that the play needs. That said, the play is definitely worth seeing due to strong performances, and a thrilling, if unexpected, ending.

14 June 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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