'Sideways': Theater Review

Pamela Raith
From left: Ellie Piercy, Daniel Weyman, Beth Cordingly and Simon Harrison in 'Sideways'
Old whines in a new bottle.
7/9/2016

Rex Pickett combines elements of his original novel with Alexander Payne's Oscar-winning buddy comedy for this new stage version of the boozy California bromance.

An impressive demonstration of cast-iron bladder control if nothing else, Sideways requires its cast to glug down gallons of stage wine through a long evening of bittersweet comedy, midlife angst and booze-fueled sex. Adapted by Rex Pickett from his celebrated 1998 novel, this new stage version of the odd-couple road-trip saga immortalized in Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 movie makes its London debut this week following two successful runs at theaters in Southern California.

Smartly marketed with promotional wine-tasting ticket offers, David Grindley's London production retains much of the laid-back charm that made Payne’s movie into a runaway success — even to the extent of boosting global sales of Pinot Noir while deflating demand for Merlot. Aimed squarely at fans of the movie, this is a light reworking rather than a bold reinvention, perfectly palatable but hardly a rare vintage.

The plot distils a weeklong road trip through the vineyards of California's Central Valley with verbose wine snob Miles (Daniel Weyman), a recently divorced would-be novelist, and his minor-league Hollywood actor friend Jack (Simon Harrison), a serial womanizer intent on having one last fling before his wedding. Shallow hedonist Jack wastes little time in hooking up with the raunchy Terra (Beth Cordingly) for lashings of hot, loud sex. Meanwhile, glass-half-full depressive Miles develops a shy crush on Maya (Ellie Piercy), who conveniently shares his highbrow tastes in wine and literature. But infidelity and dishonesty backfire on both men, leaving Jack with a broken nose and Miles a broken heart.

Pickett was not involved in the movie screenplay (by Payne and Jim Taylor), and describes the stage version as a way of "reclaiming" his semi-autobiographical novel. But Payne's film inevitably exerts a strong gravitational pull on this adaptation, which has been revised again since its La Jolla Playhouse run in 2013. The second act originally took a dark turner with a wild boar hunt, but that has now been dropped in favor of the reckless, farcical bed-hopping climax from the big screen.

There are minor changes from the movie. Rechristened Stephanie in Sandra Oh's screen incarnation, Terra now reverts to her original name, while Miles and Maya's eventual reconciliation is more emphatic on stage than in Payne's more open-ended film. Looking like a refugee from a Wes Anderson comedy, Weyman's Miles is more of a willowy aesthete than Paul Giamatti's puppyish neurotic, while Harrison's Jack is more horny frat-boy surfer dude than Thomas Haden Church's daytime-soap smoothie. Pickett and Grindley also amplify the bawdy comic elements, with frank sexual language and brief flashes of nudity.

As in the movie, a jaunty jazz soundtrack punctuates the action, while a soft sound-bed of chirruping crickets evokes the balmy Central Valley hinterland. Grindley's minimal staging features two revolving partition walls that provide the backdrop to every scene, sporadically adorned with furniture. It's impressively versatile, but becomes drab and repetitive over the long haul. The episodic structure also makes for a bumpy emotional ride at times, and ends up feeling bloated for a rom-com at two-and-a-half hours, significantly longer than the pic. But while the first acts drags a little, the second half picks up the pace with a detour into uproarious physical slapstick.

The all-British cast tackle their American accents with varying degrees of competence, mostly smoothly but with a few wobbles and off-key notes. And while the two male antiheroes are clearly presented as lovably self-absorbed jerks, Sideways would not pass the Bechdel Test with these one-dimensional female characters. Pickett's play arguably succumbs more to chauvinistic fantasy than Payne's film, with Maya in particular feeling like a middle-aged variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché. Fortunately, all four flawed protagonists are just about witty and charming enough to sell this boozy bromance as warm-hearted, effortless entertainment.

Venue: St. James Theatre, London
Starring: Daniel Weyman, Simon Harrison, Ellie Piercy, Beth Cordingly, Kirsten Hazel Smith, Daniel Barry
Playwright: Rex Pickett
Director: David Grindley
Set and costume designer: Laura Hopkins
Lighting designer: Mark Howland
Sound designer: Fergus O’Hare
Movement director: Chris Cuming
Fight director: Philip d’Orleans
Presented by Matt Chisling, Amy Anzel, Laurence Myers

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