True West

Sam Shepard
Bristol Old Vic
(2003)

While I'm not convinced by Sam Shepherd's claims to greatness as a playwright, this admittedly based on a slender acquaintance with his works, True West, as seen at Bristol Old Vic, is a terrific piece of entertainment.

That this is so is, in the main, down to a bravura performance by Phil Daniels as the permanently cut grifter, Lee, who unexpectedly turns up at his mother's home where his brother Austin, a tyro screenwriter, is working on a story.

The fact that Bristol Old Vic, until recently in artistic decline, can now attract the likes of Phil Daniels, best know for his role in the film Quadrophenia and contribution to the Parklife album, is testament to the theatre's renaissance under the directorship of David Farr and Simon Reade. As is its ability to attract director Wilson Milam, who directed Shepherd's A Lie of the Mind to critical acclaim at the Donmar, and the blackly comic Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Like Fool for Love, the action takes place in one room, (or here, one room and a patio), so that despite the expanses of desert and untouched land beyond the scene of action, the sense is of claustrophobia, a struggle for territory.

The design, by Dick Bird, who was responsible for the much-admired Great Expectations at the Old Vic earlier this year, is excellent. White framed windows opening on to a patio area with plants, furniture and skies beyond.

Lee lives in the desert because, by his own admission, he can't live among people. He gets by by burglary, hustling, although he is insistent he is not a parasite as the people he steals off "don't need their TVs". Austin, by contrast, has had a college education, settled down with a wife and kids and as the play opens, is apparently on the verge of selling a screenplay to an agent.

But despite Lee's contempt for Austin, his brother returns scorn with affection and, as the play develops, it's revealed that he regards Lee with something like hero worship. Nor are Lee's feelings as straightforward as they seem. Shepherd has spoken frankly of his violent relationship with his father and of his early reluctance to write about the subject of "the family". In True West, the boys' father is a drunk holed up in New Mexico - as was Shepherd's own.

Shepherd is championed by his admirers for probing the underbelly of America. In True West, Austin is as much a hustler, a 'parasite' as Lee, or his agent Saul Kimmer, who abandons Austin's screenplay in favour of his brother's when he smells money, for a true-to-life western story. But this story is no more true to life than Saul's; it's all illusion; where is authenticity to be found? Lee talks with disgust of the disappearance of the open spaces of his boyhood, the loss of desert coyotes for city coyotes and the lack of 'clean' air.

Jane Lowe as 'mom' and Jim Dunk as Saul Kimmer turn in creditable performances; Andrew Tiernan, as Austin, grows in stature as the play wears on and his character is given more to do than act as a straight man to Lee's increasingly outrageous behaviour, but it is Phil Daniels' night and if the accent wobbles at times, all is forgiven for a wonderfully comic performance.

Pete Wood