John Malkovich returning to the West End stage after more than 30 years in the world premier of Bitter Wheat, a play written and directed by David Mamet is a big deal. When the subject matter is the sleazy casting couch attitude of some Hollywood producers that created the #metoo movement, then opinions are divided and those differences of opinion could be heard as soon as the audience made its way to the exits, writes Michael Holland.

Malkovich in a fat suit plays Barney Fein as the archetypal misanthrope, an Ebenezer Scrooge with a punchier line in put-downs, surrounded by Yes Men who do his bidding under fear of being exposed as slimy as himself. Everyone owes Fein a favour and he uses that power to corrupt.

Bitter Wheat opens with Fein defrauding a writer of his fee, and using his long-term PA as a do-as-I-say gopher. The audience finds it hilarious; if it was a Hugh Grant romcom we’d be on the floor in stitches. His doctor arrives with his supply of Viagra so Fein wants to use them – Soon. Cue a young actress from England who wants to make it in Hollywood in a film called Dark Water.

The comedy now cuts with another edge. The laughter is now tinged with a mix of horror and guilt: the horror of the young girl being molested and threatened, the guilt because we are still laughing at the great lines. It was an unusual dichotomy that left an uneasy feeling and bitter taste. I could hear sharp intakes of breath from my partner as the play sunk into darker waters. She explained that it revived memories of similar situations.

Malkovich is on throughout and commands the stage, so everyone else becomes a bit player. And because he is such a big force Doon Mackichan has to work so much harder as the worn-down secretary, and hats off to Ioanna Kimbook in her West End debut as the actress, both managing to make their presence felt.

But isn’t that the point? The Barney Feins of this world live like they are the only people that count and everyone else is there to be used and abused. Fein’s life is played out as a series of movie pitches. Even when his world comes crashing down he is thinking about the film that will come of it. And when he is ruined he sees no blame in himself other than, ‘it’s all because I’m fat’. 

Mamet is not condoning Fein’s behaviour, nor condemning – He has written about what happens in life for the theatre so we can discuss it. Nevertheless, one day after my initial thoughts of actually liking the Malkovich character because of his don’t care attitude, they have now changed. Feins should not be made likeable, for any reason.

Bitter Wheat is seriously funny and this rankles. It ended with a joke and I am torn

Bitter Wheat is  on at Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0HH until 21st September. Times Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Thurs & Sat matinees. Admission: £25 – £125. Phone: 0330 333 4811

Photos: Manuel Harlan