Sideways is a wonderful tonic after a long day at the office for anyone in London. It speaks of the dangers as well as the joys of escape both from daily routine and also moral responsibility, but does so in a refreshingly witty and non-judgemental fashion.

Sideways

While Alexander Payne’s wine-lovers’ road movie of 2004 is a well-known, even cult, film that made the name of Paul Giamatti, it is often forgotten that it originated in a novel written by Rex Pickett for whom it represented an equally crucial autobiographical breakthrough.

On his uppers in LA, Pickett created this archetypical story of mid-life crisis out of his love of the Californian Wine Country around Santa Barbara, and specifically his liking for Pinot Noir, the most tricksy and hard to nurture of all grape varieties.

At the same time he narrated a fine story about the stresses and strains of male friendship and evoked in lead-character Miles, a mercurial, self-sabotaging, self-lacerating comic hero of extraordinary eloquence.

On the face of it turning a highly successful film into a play seems fraught with risk. One of the obvious strengths of the film was its ravishing natural locations, which by definition cannot be reproduced on stage. And linked to that there is the whole question of how to make the encomia to wine meaningful in the absence of the overriding sensual stimulus that film can give.

SidewaysThe creative team for Sideways have thought very carefully about these challenges, and by and large resolved them through relying on the traditional resources and unique virtues of the theatre – inventive scene changes, a text which is both witty and fantastical, as required, and a uniformly excellent cast.

While the scenario remains basically the same as the film, there are some fresh scenes, and much more attention to developing the dialogue and detailed rapport between the four leads.

While Merlot drinkers still suffer the same disdain as before, the play scores points over the film for developing beyond a weekend on the civilised razzle into a genuine four-hander in which Terra and Maya, the two local wine pourers who meet Miles and Jack, give as good as they get. No tasting-room totty here, but a contest of equals!

Miles, recently divorced and forever trying to get his first novel published, has been re-written as the kind of anti-hero who will play recognisably well to an English audience. His greatest love affair lies not with wine or women, but with language; and the part as written gives the actor great scope for debonair wit as well as extraordinary riffs of language devoted either to celebrating wines or to self-condemnation.

SidewaysWith a lesser writer or actor this could become tedious, but the playfulness and invention never palls, even though one is aware at times of literary archetypes. ‘Film noir rather than pinot noir’, one character suggests; and this is fair comment at least on the degree of self-dramatisation around the central character.

Laura Hopkins furnishes a flexible set, with two three-sided hinged wooden panels that can be adapted into any number of bar, motel and winery interiors. There are many ingenious combinations and for the most part everything works smoothly, with much of the heavy lifting undertaken by the cast.

There is no doubt that the scene changes hold up the action a bit, especially in the darker, intentionally fast-moving second half; but there is no way around this problem that I can see.

As it is, we get to hear a lot of pleasant and apt Miles Davis on the sound track to cover the scene changes, and experienced director David Grindley creates plenty of engaging business and scene-stealing key moments of high comedy and poignancy as the atmosphere darkens.

SidewaysFor Sideways to work well the audience has to enter the world of wine and connect to the heady temptations of renowned vintages, escapist beautiful landscapes, exquisite food, and sexual attraction, without the whole tipping over into unconvincing pretentiousness.

It is thanks to the deftness of the players and the invention of the language that this was achieved. ‘The perfect Pinot-pairing’, the final line of part one, marks the coming together of man and woman, and wine in alluring rather than ridiculous union.

The best tribute one can pay to this production is that by then the audience was certainly hooked: the dinner-party that led up to the interval had everyone salivating over the matchings of wines and dishes described and evoked, and the chemistry between the couples.

After that it was perhaps no surprise that the free food and wine provided by a sponsor during the interval was hoovered up in a frenzied way rarely seen in the West End…

Daniel Weyman erases all memories of Giamatti in his interpretation of neurotic Miles. His vulnerability and love of language were beautifully conveyed, together with the character’s inimitable gift for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

SidewaysSimon Harrison, as Jack, is an excellent foil to Weyman. While the role is deliberately drawn in a much more two-dimensional way, he finds moments of apprehensive self-doubt and introspection alongside blokeish glee. His earthier reaction to wine, women and sport, for all its amorality, serves to anchor the play in mundane, recognisable realities; and his willingness to embrace temptations and bulldoze moral scruples with charm is all too plausible and familiar.

Ellie Piercy as Maya and Beth Cordingly as Terra are in terrific form, and make you despair of the crass treatment they receive at the hands of the their dates. Cordingly’s character draws the shortest straw, and yet she never comes over as a victim, her feisty playing essential to what is the funniest scene in the play. Piercy gives a very subtle and richly detailed portrayal, which acts as the conscience for the audience through the evening, and covers a huge emotional range.

A range of minor parts are well taken by Daniel Barry, Kirsten Hazel-Smith and Anne Kavanagh, the latter having a particularly funny cameo as Miles’ mother Phyllis.

This show is a wonderful tonic after a long day at the office for anyone in London. It speaks of the dangers as well as the joys of escape both from daily routine and also moral responsibility, but does so in a refreshingly witty and non-judgemental fashion. You will be hard put to find a better, more fizzy or delectable company at work than this one; and while the film was often categorised as one for men rather than women, everyone around me, irrespective of gender, seemed to find the play irresistible.

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Sideways
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…