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20th Jan, 2022

Oleanna masterpiece at Malvern is 'not for the faint-hearted'

Malvern Editorial 14th Jul, 2021

THEATRE followers know a play by American playwright David Mamet is not going to be a comfortable night, but rather to expect an assault on your senses.

Although it was first premiered way back in 1992, ‘Oleanna’ is no exception, indeed it has an extra relevance as it is now post ‘Me-too’ and all the changes that has brought about.

The word ‘masterpiece’ seems fitting but of course masterpieces require squeezing like a ripe orange to drain every drop and must be treated as if the writer himself were in the audience to observe and nod approval. Director Lucy Bailey does Mamet proud and so do her company of two – Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy.

Slinger plays John Pullman, a university lecturer and published writer at the top of his game. At the start of the play he is awaiting university tenure and a healthy pay rise, which he is going to use to buy a new house befitting his upcoming status. Sheehy plays Carol Styles, a student at the bottom of the educational ladder – the polar opposite to John. She feels as much a failure as John feels a success

Both Slinger and Sheehy give gladiatorial performances as the three acts take us on a journey that is a cross between a theatrical rollercoaster and a tough day at Wimbledon.

Slinger peels layer after layer from the smooth John – every students ‘pin up’ tutor. The chirpy tutor exudes confidence from every pore in act one, loses the shine in act two and descends into a train wreck in act three.

Sheehy turns from wallflower to sunflower over the same three acts as she changes into the ‘Cruella Deville’ of students.

The set, by Alex Eales, is John’s spacious, book-lined university office. At the opening John is on the phone and seated at his main desk, at his back is a much smaller desk where Carol sits cowed and awkwardly. When he turns it is to a position of dominance, over his incumbent student. Beyond Carol’s desk is a sofa and a floor lamp, which not too subtly cries ‘casting couch’.

The plot’s main theme concerns sexual harassment but Oleanna is so much more than that – it is about power, misogyny, misplaced political correctness and ultimately assassination by another name.

Oleanna starts quietly and ends in breath-taking violence. We are left to review over and over again the rights and wrongs, the lies and truths. It is oh-so clever – a masterclass in acting and direction as much as it is a masterpiece in writing. I am recommending this production highly but with a warning – it’s not for the faint–hearted.

If you were wondering, Oleanna is the title of a 19th century Irish folk song about utopia.

It runs until Saturday, July 17.

Click here for times, tickets and more information.

Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose Reviews.

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