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Theatre review: House of Games 
30th-Sep-2010 10:24 pm
tragicomedavatar
I've found the Almeida very hit-and-miss this year; their latest production can go in the "hit" pile for me, it's flawed but the most entertaining of the four shows I've seen this week. House of Games was a David Mamet film; playwright Richard Bean has said that, in adapting it for the stage, the main change he made was injecting humour into the story, and this he's done successfully, with the wisecracks coming from the word go. Margaret (an unrecognisable Nancy Carroll) is a psychiatrist and lecturer, who's recently made a lot of money out of a bestselling pop-psychology book. Her patient Billy (Al Weaver) is a compulsive gambler, and through him she meets a group of poker-playing conmen who operate out of the titular basement bar. Stuck as to what her follow-up book will be, Margaret decides that hanging out with the hustlers and learning classic con tricks will give her plenty of material. But how can she be sure that any deal she makes with them won't lead to them trying to trick her as well?

One thing this theatre doesn't skimp on is sets, and Peter McKintosh's two-level set is effective and atmospheric, with the bar taking up most of the stage, and a hidden upper level revealing Margaret's office; through a bar window we can see a musician playing Django Bates' score on electric guitar, adding to the moodiness. So it's not down to the surroundings that, despite enjoying the show from the off, it took me a while to buy into this group of grifters. Maybe it's the fact that there's so many familiar faces from London theatre on stage (the cast includes Trevor Cooper, Peter De Jersey, Amanda Drew, John Marquez, all of whom I've seen in several plays before) that made me feel very acutely that I was watching actors playing conmen, rather than conmen. This was less of a problem for me as the play went on though.

Leading the hustlers is Mike (played by short-lived Jimmy Olsen Michael Landes - he does list Lois & Clark in his bio so maybe he's no longer bitter about that whole debacle.) Margaret's immediately attracted to him and who can bloody blame her - I'd almost be willing to forgive him for the fact that his unavailability for series 2 of Love Soup resulted in one of the most distressing plot twists on telly EVAR. Come to think of it, Michael Landes' TV career is most memorable for shows that he left, rather than shows he stuck around in. I feel I may be going off-course a little so I'll get back to House of Games and say that, despite very different subject matters, it rather reminded me of Deathtrap, in that both are structured around multiple double-crosses, that aren't necessarily that hard for the audience to see coming (I'd say the twists here are actually more obvious than in Deathtrap,) and ultimately provide a fun ride. There's even a touch of the tongue-in-cheek metatextual commenting on the story's structure and characters, although Bean reserves it all for an epilogue. It's not revolutionary, but Lindsay Posner's production is an entertaining 100 minutes at the theatre.

House of Games by David Mamet, adapted by Richard Bean is booking until the 6th of November at the Almeida Theatre.
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