Friday, 16 February 2018

Theatre review: John

Annie Baker's playwrighting style can be at times understated to the point of eccentricity, but 2016's production of The Flick obviously found an audience at the National as her latest, John - even the title now understated and cryptic - also comes to the Dorfman, and to me at least feels like something a bit more special even than the lauded last play. Elias (Tom Mothersdale) was an American Civil War geek as a child, so when a road trip home after Thanksgiving takes them near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he persuades his girlfriend Jenny (Anneika Rose) that they should stop off there for a couple of days so he can visit the historic battlefields. Already much less enthusiastic about trekking through freezing cornfields than her boyfriend is, when Jenny gets a particularly painful period she ends up letting him go out alone, staying behind at the bed and breakfast with its colourful owner.

Each of the three acts in James Macdonald's production opens and closes with landlady Mertis (Marylouise Burke) slowly pulling the stage curtains by hand, perhaps suggesting she's the sort of benevolent, supernatural force looking out for the place that she later talks about.

Behind the curtains is a memorable Chloe Lamford set, Mertis' idea of a welcoming place for her guests being to decorate every spare surface with knick-knacks, particularly dolls, which surround the staircase up to the (underheated) bedrooms, looking down on everyone below. It's a particularly unfortunate setting for Jenny as she suffers from a form of anxiety that makes her assign personalities to inanimate objects, and as one of the dolls is identical to one she owned (and was a bit afraid of) as a child, she has trouble relaxing there.

Between the times Elias and Jenny spend together in the living room when she can't sleep, or at breakfast in the morning, and Jenny being invited to share a bottle of wine with Mertis and her friend Genevieve, the picture begins to become clearer of the young couple having much bigger relationship problems than just an awkward weekend away. As with The Flick, Baker uses the banal to slowly tease out the cracks and quiet despair in ordinary people's lives, although John's hyperrealism plays a bit more with storytelling conventions, particularly those of horror: Elias and Jenny love ghost stories, and the doll-filled house seems to come straight out of one, complete with piano that starts playing itself in the middle of the night.

Burke as Mertis, and June Watson as the blind Genevieve, also provide a nice twist on the trope on the kindly, eccentric old lady who might harbour dark secrets - the former with her bedridden husband we're never quite sure is real, the latter describing a past mental illness where she was convinced her ex-husband was controlling her thoughts, both with their casual mentions of rooms in the B&B that only exist intermittently.

This being Annie Baker, the only ghosts that'll jump out of the shadows are metaphorical ones, but Macdonald's production really uses this toying with the supernatural to give John a distinctive feel of its own that's variously funny and heartbreaking but ultimately not despairing. 2018 has already provided more than enough shows going over the three-hour mark and this is another to add to the list, but despite its slow pace it doesn't feel as long as it is - its appeal is hard to describe as it's so low-key, but the cast utterly sell you on its characters and the unexpected, sometimes restrictive places their lives have taken them to.

John by Annie Baker is booking until the 3rd of March at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

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