Reviewing theatre on a wine website is a bit like The Stage critiquing interval drinks, but then much of Sideways involves hopeless losers outside their comfort zone. After existing as a novel and then as a successful and much-loved film, the stage incarnation has now arrived in London after first surfacing in Santa Monica in 2012.
The setup is unchanged: Miles and Jack are two best buddies on a wine-tasting road-trip around the vineyards north-west of Los Angeles. Miles is a neurotic and failing writer whose pursuit of wine is pretty much his only source of comfort. Jack is an amoral lothario more interested in pursuing local women – despite his imminent wedding. High jinks ensue.
It grates a little to begin with, relying heavily on toilet humour and swearing in the opening scenes, but the script warms up quickly once Miles and Jack get on the road. From then on, the writing is excellent and the cast perform it brilliantly.
While the on-stage plot is largely unchanged from the one on screen, Rex Pickett has adapted his work to ensure that it isn’t just a live action reboot of the film. True, some memorable moments are repeated – the infamous Merlot line, for example, and the spittoon drinking scene – but by the time they arrive, the audience is won over and greets them gleefully.
For the most part, the writing is original, witty, intelligent and informed. Wine features heavily, of course, and this is one of the play’s most impressive achievements: it is discussed accurately and affectionately, without taking itself too seriously. When Miles rhapsodises about Pinot Noir, his pretentious reverie is genuine, even touching. There is no dumbing down of the subject, and there are even a few rather good in-jokes for the benefit of fellow wine tragics.
As Miles, Daniel Weyman gets the tone just right. His expletive-ridden frustration at the perceived injustice of life contrasts convincingly with moments of bittersweet introspection. From his gobsmacked incredulity at Jack’s misdemeanours to his toe-wiggling angst when ruminating on his own failures, Weyman has superb emotional range and makes the role entirely his own. He is ably supported by Simon Harrison, who plays the unscrupulous blackguard Jack with shameless relish, plus Ellie Piercy and Beth Cordingly as Maya and Terra, as very likeable strong female leads. The on-stage chemistry is a pleasure to watch.
Sideways is not entirely without taint, however. The worst fault is that of the set, which may have ingenious intent to its design but was decidedly shonky in execution, causing several malfunctions during scene changes. It created an unfortunately amateurish look, and this production deserves better than that. The smoothness may improve as the production beds in (this was the opening night performance, after all) but the play would be equally effective with fewer changes of location – especially in the second half, where several scenes could be condensed to keep the action more fluid and effective.
Also, the excess profanity seemed indulgent, and the brief nudity was shamefully gratuitous. This isn’t a matter of prudishness but of whether it distracts from the action rather than complementing it. However, such minor gripes are forgiven easily enough when the rest of the production is so enjoyable and entertaining.
Throughout the play, Miles makes repeated mention of Château Latour 1982, a wine he reveres almost religiously. In film form, Sideways occupies a place equally sacred in the hearts of many wine lovers. For a stage production to overcome that obstacle and appear fresh, funny and original is a significant triumph.
Sideways runs at the St James Theatre, London between 26 May and 9 July.