What appears to occur in John, as far as I can deduce, is a bizarre set of circumstances arising from the inability to move on from the impact of events earlier on in the lives of these four on-stage characters. Each is widely different from the other three, so the complexities in the narrative do not stem from an exploration of a large range of topics and themes – the play comes across as a stream of consciousness than a carefully constructed drama. I overheard someone in the interval wonder how much of the show was actually scripted. The answer to that question is simple enough: copies of the text were on sale at the National Theatre.
This is a world in which a mobile telephone becomes the centre of a disagreement between Elias (Tom Mothersdale) and Jenny (Anneika Rose), guests at a bed and breakfast run by Mertis (Marylouise Burke), though Mertis prefers to go by ‘Kitty’ – her preference is not often respected.
She is, nonetheless, one of those cheery and hospitable hosts, with a rather deadpan sense of humour; her longstanding friend, Genevieve (June Watson) is all the more inscrutable, though she does get some marvellous punchlines.
Comedy as quirky as the storyline itself permeates through the evening’s proceedings, which are lengthy enough to justify two intervals. The fourth wall is sort of breached: there is no audience participation, but an intriguing (at least to me) interaction takes place when Mertis potters around the stage. For instance, she initiates a scene change by going around, as Her Majesty the Queen apparently does at Buckingham Palace, switching off the lights. I will leave it to others to deduce what metaphor, if there is one, exists in Mertis slowly drawing the stage curtains shut to indicate the end of each of the play’s three acts.
Some of the silences in this production go on for so long that the ones in Harold Pinter’s plays are mercifully brief in comparison. Genevieve, having lost her sight for reasons explained in the play, has her other senses relatively more heightened as a result, and she hears things that nobody else does.
But certain conversations take place in the upstairs bedrooms, and are (deliberately) muffled – a talking point in the first interval. Not being able to hear dialogue is usually indicative of a weakness in a production (or, of course, a need for the listener to see a GP with a view to getting a referral to a hearing specialist) but here, in the show’s context, it only adds to the intrigue.
There are explorations of the supernatural. Mertis asks Jenny and Elias, separately, if they ever feel like they are being watched by something. The plot is, on reflection, relatively light, given the running time: this allows each event to be explored in considerable depth. It is, in the end, refreshing to see a play completely buck the trend of the ninety-minute, no-interval, express-delivery dramas.
Nothing in this production is superfluous in the end, and it’s a testament to the skilled writing and compelling acting that something as negligible as the sound of breakfast being eaten has some significance. A reflective and thoughtful play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The week after Thanksgiving. A bed & breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A cheerful innkeeper. A young couple struggling to stay together. Thousands of inanimate objects, watching.
Director James Macdonald
Designer Chloe Lamford
Lighting Designer Peter Mumford
Sound Designer Christopher Shutt
Dialect Coach Charmian Hoare
Staff Director Rosy Banham
by Annie Baker
17 January – 3 March
Running Time: 3 hours 20 mins, with 2 intervals