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Review: John, at Dorfman, National Theatre

Annie Baker’s play explores raw feelings of vulnerability, loneliness and love

08 February, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale in John. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

A PROSCENIUM staging allows Annie Baker’s play to open with Marylouise Burke, grinning complicitly, slowly drawing upon the red velvet curtains as kind, inquisitive Mertis, keeper of a B&B in Gettysburg.

There it is: near the door a Christmas tree, with a model railway beneath it running past little houses, a juke box offering Bach, a piano that suddenly plays itself and a sign saying “Paris” at the eating end (because you can get a drink or a snack there 24/7). Dolls are everywhere. Bedrooms are named after Civil War soldiers; one out of use – a leaky ceiling, or perhaps a more sinister reason.

The only guests are a young couple on their way home from Thanksgiving with her family. Computer programmer Elias and Jenny, who writes questions for TV quiz shows, are going through a bad patch. He thinks she’s always angry; she’s guiltily hiding something. Can they learn anything from the history of this place from the older generation of Mertis and her blind friend Genevieve?

Jenny and Elias’s relationship slowly unravels, not helped by her period cramps and freezing temperatures upstairs.

Anneika Rose radiates Jenny’s unease, wine makes her start talking, while Tom Mothersdale shows Elias’s tetchy need for reassurance. But what is really going on? Is this place haunted? Does Mertis really have a sick husband in their private quarters? When time passes between scenes she moves the clock’s fingers. Is she somehow controlling everything happening?

Blind Genevieve is far from unseeing. June Watson, convincing in blindness, makes her like a female Tiresias, it’s a high spot when she delays an interval to talk about her spell of insanity.

It’s a long play, but with these performances under James Macdonald’s direction slowness and pauses compel attention as the play explores raw feelings of vulnerability, loneliness and love.

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