Theatre review: True West (Citizens Theatre)

Alex Ferns in True West
Alex Ferns in True West

True West has become something of an American classic since its premiere in San Francisco more than three decades ago.

Over the years many of the finest Hollywood actors have relished the challenge of Sam Shephard’s dark tale - including such luminaries as Tommy Lee Jones, John Malkovich, Bruce Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly.

Watching the latest production at the Citizens theatre - starring former Eastenders baddie Alex Ferns and Northern Irish writer and actor Eugene O’Hare - it’s easy to see what attracts such heavyweights to the play. The story of sibling rivalry between two brothers taking care of their mother’s house is an actor’s dream, with both main roles offering the chance to flex the full range of thespian muscles.

Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter on the verge of a major deal, while Lee is a crooked drifter who lives life on the edge of society. Lee’s outsider charm works wonders on a powerful movie producer (played with suitable slickness by Steven Elliot), persuading him to drop Austin’s script in favour of a trashy cliched Western. In the process he unleashes a torrent of jealousy and violence which threatens to destroy both men.

Alex Ferns commits completely to the ne’er-do-well Lee, his brash exterior betrayed by scared and vulnerable eyes. He treds the fine line between comedy and tragedy with skill, provoking laughs and gasps in equal measure. It’s a bravura performance which only spins out of control at one point in the second half - when his sheer levels of rage threaten to leave him nowhere to go before successfully regrouping.

The level of kineticism slightly overshadows O’Hare at first, but he too delivers a fine performance which gets better the more the buttoned-up Austin unravels.

Phillip Breen directs the play tightly as a whole, while allowing the actors space to relish in the massively-physical set-pieces, whether smashing a typewriter with a golf club or showering themselves in cheap lager.

The pay-off when the long-suffering mother (played by Glasgow favourite Barbara Rafferty) returns home is pure comedy - the simple act of placing a coaster prompting a round of applause - before the darkness descends once again for a perfectly cinematic freeze-frame ending