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Review: Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 10:37 07 March 2019 | UPDATED: 10:37 07 March 2019

(L-R): Mark Benton (Shelley Levene) & Nigel Harman (Ricky Roma) in Glengarry Glen Ross (c) Marc Brenner

(L-R): Mark Benton (Shelley Levene) & Nigel Harman (Ricky Roma) in Glengarry Glen Ross (c) Marc Brenner

Archant

This clever play about desperate salesmen will leave you reeling, grieving, grinning, and with the literary equivalent of a 50-year timeshare in Marbella. Brilliant, says Katie Jarvis

My ex-hairdresser – in the days of my youth – once told me he was employing an American PR/marketing company to advise him. “They told me,” he said, as he snipped away, “to put my prices up. And if anybody asked why I was doing that, they said to say, ‘Because I want to make more money’.”

I was incredibly impressed by his honesty and truthfulness while, at the same time, making a mental note to change hairdresser immediately.

The last thing we want from salespeople is honesty and openness. We want to feel we’ve got a bargain; we want to be flattered by the sales pitch; we want to buy something worthless and absurd that we can regret for up to 14 calendar days afterwards.

I didn’t expect to enjoy Glengarry Glen Ross, currently playing at Cheltenham’s Everyman. It’s sweary, angry, and bleak. And, anyway, why would you go all the way out to a theatre, on a cold wet evening, to watch a play about salesmen (yes, they are all men), when you could simply phone a timeshare company and enjoy something similar in the comfort of your own home?

But I did enjoy it, in all its awful, sad, tragic, biting humour. Humour that takes the survival of the fittest and adds a socking punchline. Humour – and this seems rare in comedy nowadays – that throws in a joke while knifing a character to death. True, unashamed blackness. And I loved it.

So the play opens to desperate salesman Shelly Levene (an absolutely superb Mark Benton) plying with patter his manager John Williamson (I’m not going to keep saying ‘excellent’, ‘wonderful’ etc; Mark stands out; but there’s rarely a duff note within the cast).

Shelly’s performance is waning. He needs to be back on the top sales board. But, to do that, he needs leads. Leads. LEADS!

They’re meeting in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago: red lanterns; red seats; red blinds; red screen; red decorations on the wall. Nature red in tooth and claw.

“JUST GIVE ME A HOT LEAD!”

John won’t budge… Err…Except to bribes that Shelly can ill afford.

The second scene (this is not a long play) throws in a briefcase of racism (Indians: “a supercilious race”), to boot. Dave Moss (Denis Conway) is tying less-successful colleague George Aaronow (Wil Johnson) up in knots; trying to persuade him that being a pushy, dishonest sales rep simply isn’t enough. Something far more nefarious has to be thrown into the mix.

The third scene shows star salesman Ricky Roma (Nigel Harman) reeling in ripe-for-the-picking un-would-be buyer James Lingk (James Staddon). Roma intends to offload worthless real estate that Lingk never suspected he wanted in the first place.

So, what makes this play so good?

Easy. It’s the way it exploits a cut-throat industry in which everyone (in David Mamet’s world; and probably in many sales worlds) is your enemy. Fellow sales reps, who outsell you. Customers who won’t sign. Customers who regret signing. Office managers who won’t give you the best leads. Indians who never buy; who just like talking to sales reps.

It’s the way it shows how great sales reps are arch manipulators; are philosophers who understand the human psyche so completely that the sale is merely the inevitable result – the final touch – of a cat playing with a mouse. Salesmen who could give high-earning lawyers a run for their money, with brilliant, Escher-like arguments that twist and coil back on themselves in a never-ending staircase.

It’s the way that salesmen can’t stop being salesmen. Can’t stop talking as salesman. Can’t stop trying to win in any situation. Who’d be selling you non-existent places in a lifeboat as the Titanic went down.

And, my word, these actors – directed by Sam Yates - work hard for their money. The whole play bamboozles the audience with patter so fast and so lacking in pauses that we’re all gasping for breath at the end of it.

The final punch – of many punches – I guess, is the realisation that anarchy, anger, competitiveness, selfishness, desperation are never much below the surface of any of us. That, given a situation in which we’re fighting for the last loaf, we’d soon all discover a fair smattering of lawlessness just below the epidermis.

“Every time a friend succeeds, something in me dies,” Gore Vidal is reputed to have said.

This is a play in which few succeed, and a little something in everyone dies.

But, even as these characters writhe and suffer, a part of you feels something important and valuable has just been lost.

Brilliant.

Catch Glengarry Glen Ross at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham up until Saturday, March 9. Book tickets here or via the Box Office on 01242 572573

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