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FringeReview UK 2018


National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Director James Macdonald’s animates the spooky naturalism in Annie Baker’s John. Chloe Lamford’s precisely delineated living room with ‘Paris’ emblazoned on one of the few walls not festooned with dolls almost lifts off with presence. Peter Munford’s lighting works like a diurnal shift. A gamut of Bach on a kind of lit-up classic jukebox, is part of the sound envelope here realized by Christopher Shutt, where an errant player-piano is very much a fifth character.


After Annie Baker’s outstanding The Flick in 2016 also in the Dorfman, her 2015 play John written two years later, has raised expectations that punch the roof of this intimate space. Baker happily confounds and confirms in equal measure. From a lovingly-detailed real-time cinema we’re transported here to a Getttysburg B&B. Director James Macdonald’s no stranger to spooky naturalism, for instance directing Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. Here, the invisibles seem to be not radiation but that what the rows of dolls are giving off.


John’s not just about American gothic, its subversions and confirmations, but Chloe Lamford’s precisely delineated living room with ‘Paris’ emblazoned on one of the few walls not festooned with dolls almost lifts off with presence. Such décor seems freaky, but it’s more natural in the U. S. than over here. Even so, Lamford’s chocked living space with a staircase giving on to offstage bedrooms where one can hear a couple rowing give onto as much super-realism as Baker’s other work. And it too lasts over three hours: not a moment seems wasted.


In the line of the recent hyper-natural of the past decade or so, Baker’s the one to give uncanny voice to awkwardness, the frisson of the nearly-said and fully realized. Peter Munford’s lighting works like a diurnal shift as the owner manually changes the hands of the grandfather clock to tally with time-shifts – and put on a gamut of Bach on a kind of lit-up classic jukebox, sound here realized by Christopher Shutt very much a fifth character. And there’s a player-piano playing when you put your finger on it. But sometimes it just starts up ‘Me and My Shadow’.


There’s an autonomous spirit abroad. And a devastating loneliness seeping out of every doll, and indeed the sighs of the four characters. The desire for communion as well as connection is overwhelming.


The B&B’s haunted by seventy-two year old kooky Mertis, an ex-cleaner who happens to identify as a neo-Platonist as she reads tracts of this of H P Lovecraft to her visiting friend Genevieve, now eighty-five and herself throwing off the spirit of John, her ex. Genevieve’s regained a peace if not it seems the witness of possession her ex subjected her to. She’s fine now; she’s blind. June Watson’s measures battiness is one of the delights of those production. And is she quite so batty? Baker explores the limits of consciousness in a way to make one laugh, then wonder exactly what she means. And Watson’s character enjoys a coup you’ll have to see for yourself.


Not that American Marylouise Burke finds this at all odd. If you can read a litany of Lovecraft and ancient tracts to a blind confederate (small C, and near the Union dead thronging outside) you can countenance the truth of anything Genevieve can throw as perfectly normal. Burke’s drawling movement from apparent distractedness to terraces of sad wisdom and insight is one of the journeys her guests must make.


Guests punctuate Mertis’ consciousness, but it’s the house which acts as a catalyst. Young couple drummer/IT programmer Elias and games-show-setter Jenny are confounded by cookies and charmed by Metis’ explanation of a change of rooms – all named after Union generals. Geeky Elias has come for the battlefield tours. Jenny’s come to help heal their relationship after her own with someone called John has derailed it. It’s hardly surprising. Elias doesn’t really want much sexual contact or even touching. Shaded by the dead he can’t allow the living their shadows.


We’ve seen in The Flick a young woman reaching out to a slightly shut-down man; this couple are respectively less and more damaged. Anneika Rose’s ardent Jenny just wishes for connection and forgiveness. Tom Mothersale’s twitchy Elias isn’t prone to giving it to her until, after several interactions with Mertis he starts telling Jenny one of the spooky stories she longs to hear. Its like a summoning, but not quite the one they’d expected. The house too can summon names from the real world, and Jenny and Genevieve ensure perhaps something more in common than you’d expect. Rose’s warm, damaged but wholly sympathetic Jenny breaks your heart as she desperately pushes herself up against Mothersdale’s flinchy Elias.


There’s a mesmerising sequence of set-pieces, including one where Jenny, with Elias at a battlefield, shares her own sexualised mystical experience with the two more vision-sassy women. All this begins to neutralize the original sense of normal meets freaky. Normal’s nowhere and freaky is wiser than you’d think. Baker though refuses to indulge or judge. Whatever the premise, her priorities remain: the aching possibility of love in bleak solitudes inside or out, of healing, of forgiveness for the past, recent or historic. And that extends to the Union dead outside. Outstanding.