FringeReview UK 2018
Michael Boyd’s direction of this eighty-five minute drama revels in the naturally uncanny. Tom Piper’s neat but tidily drab set of a balcony-giving living room lit by Oliver Fenwick is naturalist too. Madeleine Girling’s costumes aren’t simply five in number and undergo a similar brightening. The strange sonics of Andrea J Cox emanate from elsewhere
Not for nothing does Edward Albee endorse Will Eno. Without giving too much away, there’s a whiff of ministering angels in the latter part of his 2014 play The Open House, though not that of death as in The Lady From Dubuque. We’re left though with a distinct swerve from the nameless dysfunctional family who’ve gathered for an wedding anniversary.
Michael Boyd’s direction of this eighty-five minute drama revels in the naturally uncanny. The dialogue appears naturalist at first but slipstreams into surreality as each character starts from a place of platitude – the parents – or emotional reaching-out – the children and uncle. Yet no-one touches in this curiously arrested development of an afternoon where Tom Piper’s neat but tidily drab set of a balcony-giving living room lit by Oliver Fenwick is naturalist too. There’s an uneasy correlation with set and characters in fact: at one point a large strip of colourless wallpaper’s pulled away to reveal a brighter pattern. The symbolism here couldn’t be more potent given where it comes. Madeleine Girling’s costumes aren’t simply five in number and undergo a similar brightening. The strange sonics of Andrea J Cox emanate from elsewhere with an occasional twang out of The Cherry Orchard. And when three characters imitate a noise you’re somewhere in Wayne Shawn territory.
It’s as if Albee’s been reading one of those sly conversation novels of Ivy Compton Burnett. Dysfunction doesn’t cover the rigid apartness of the five as they sit talking as at a funeral for someone everyone hates. It’s centred with Greg Hicks’ wheelchair-bound father never splenetic at a life after stroke, his wife with platitudes as warmly spouted as lukewarm tea but not a touch for their hapless son and daughter let alone the hapless widower uncle, naming his wife Melissa as the wink of humanity taken from him in a tornado. It’s the only name we hear at this point. Crispin Letts conveys his modest hurt like a remittance man, somehow on sufferance, inured to disdain, as if his suffering counts for nothing.
He’s not alone. Hicks is superb at coiling arachnoid-like in his wheelchair and sucking all the energy till the vacuum flask of the living room suggests nothing else can breathe. A celebratory dinner she suggests then just for two ‘Then just me’ like Goneril and Regan crossing out the possibilities. He’s strong on food, keeping everything controlled with sarcasm and compelling selfishness. ‘If I had a little more charisma, this stuff would really fly… All this cruelty and negativity.’ Eno’s brilliance is to rasp the solipsism and non-sequitors of the parents against the emotional gambits of their children: one about love, the other about terror. Hicks’ pauses are a delight: venom breathes in them.
Teresa Banham as the Mother is almost equally frozen. ‘I cherish you right down to your bones’ she says in an access of chair-bound frigidity. A brief detail like her giving up breast-feeding because a fashion was against it has her reproving her husband: ‘You said we’d look like barn animals’. you sense she can never make a warmly-informed instinctual decision of her own. Like the Father, she’s a ritual waiting to collapse. talk of moments of feeling, of being, like the Quakers. Or adverting to when the son and daughter were young, as if was the only point she could relate to them. ‘You both got very fussy, at bedtime.’ This is in the midst of hearing of the Son’s relating the new love in his life. Not just her. She relates how Father was fond of them ‘till you could talk’. Lindsey Campbell and Ralph Davis pitch this pinched East Coast politeness with an underlying warmth never given full expression as they come home to a deep-freeze. On this form, they’re both actors to watch.
And then there’s one of those flecks of colour, a name. Richard. We never learn of this errant son just that Daughter’s not spoken to him for a year, and she’s the most recent. Most of all the Daughter announces a lump near her spin after a routine mammogram. ‘And it could be really serious’ she protests at mild concern. The way this is platitiudinized with is like a nightmare of a counselling session. The most Mother says is a Quakerism: ’I’m “holding” you, okay?’ She’s clearly not. And she’s not a Quaker anyway.
This is to detail the first half because what happens is too good to spoil. All the riot of connecting naming and colour will follow, the gradual taking-over of pods by real entities, a kind of body-snatching in reverse. The language changes, we’re connected as people communicate and interact. Till you see it you’ll not guess how. The drama Eno posits is real versus ersatz living, true occupation of a space, indeed moral inhabiting of it, and transformation along skewed possibilities.
It’s a wholly original drama, and if you like the super-naturalist verismo of Amy Herzog’s Belleville recently at the Donmar or Annie Baker’s John at the National, you’ll enjoy this sidling from that. It’s conceptually even more original, though Albee’s dark sprite lurks cheerfully over it. Do see this. It’s a masterly play – in a theatre famed for its dishevelled uniqueness.