Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Theatre review: Buried Child

A visit much later in the run of a play than I usually make - in my attempt to see less theatre Buried Child had been an easy one to skip, thanks to the hefty prices, horrible Trafalgar 1 seats, and the fact that I've not yet found much to like about Sam Shepard's plays about American masculinity. Scott Elliott's production did end up getting recommended to me by various people, though, and when a decent discount turned up for an otherwise quiet week I decided to give it a go after all. I don't know that it ended up ticking the "unmissable" box for me, but this surrealism-tinged 1978 play was certainly a bigger hit with me than the previous Shepard works I've seen. The setting is a crumbling house in remote Illinois, where Dodge (Ed Harris) has long since stopped sharing a bed with his wife and, elderly and sick, now barely ever leaves the couch.

In something of a Basil Exposition opening, his wife Halie (Amy Madigan) calls down to him from upstairs, giving him a potted history of their family in case it's slipped his degenerating mind.

But he's not the only member of the family whose sanity is precarious - the couple have had at least three sons, one of whom, retrospectively cast as the favourite who could do no wrong, has died. The oldest, Tilden (Barnaby Kay) spent some time in a New Mexico prison leading to a breakdown that's left him childlike, digging around the neighbours' fields for vegetables. One-legged Bradley (Gary Shelford) has boundary issues and likes to shave his father's head while he's sleeping.

The middle act of three is the strongest, as the arrival of an outsider exposes the creepily weird world they inhabit. After six years living in New York, Tilden's son Vince (Jeremy Irvine) returns to visit his grandparents. (If you think the way I react to certain attractive actors crosses a line, I'd like to point you towards the woman in the third row who loudly grunted with arousal when Irvine first arrived on stage. I didn't hear her reaction when he unexpectedly flashed a nipple, so maybe she'd fainted.)

When neither his father nor his grandfather recognise him, or at least pretend not to, Vince storms out, leaving his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Hope) alone with the increasingly sinister men in his family. With a lot that doesn't add up in everyone's stories, a menacing atmosphere and heavy hints of (possibly incestuous) horrors in the past, there's something determinedly Pinteresque creeping in.

Ultimately the play turns on themes of decay, ageing and turning into not just our parents but our ancestors going back generations, as Vince eventually returns drunk and seemingly as damaged as the rest of his family. It's well-performed - Harris is an intense, anchoring presence at the centre throughout but Kay is also impressive as the regressed, simple Tilden, and Madigan manages to make an impact in her short appearances. Irvine goes a bit too broad and comic in the second act but is better at Vince's disintegration, while Hope is a real find as the trapped but ballsy outsider in among the madness. The third act tips over into a more overtly horror-like atmosphere, giving each of the sections (there's two intervals - despite the fact that the venue doesn't have enough toilets they somehow managed to keep them down to ten minutes each) its own feel. Something with a bit more depth and unnerving atmosphere than the other work I've seen by this playwright.

Buried Child by Sam Shepard is booking until the 4th of March at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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