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John, National Theatre, London, review: Quirkily funny and disquieting

“Breakneck” is an adjective that is never going to be applied to the American dramatist, Annie Baker. Her plays are magnificently unhurried and slow-burn – to the despair of some audience members and to the delight of others, including myself.  She’s the laureate of lost souls and – in a manner that feels quietly defiant in these attention-deficit days – she gives her characters the time to pause and register the awkwardness of failing to know what to say or just to sit in ruminative silence.  

Baker had a hit at the National a couple of years ago with The Flick, her sensitive, tragicomic piece about a trio of minimum-wage misfits cleaning a dying cinema.  Now she’s back with another play that happens to run for around three hours 20 minutes.  John has many of the trappings of a ghost story but what makes it truly haunting is the way it avoids outright scariness and instead lays stress on characters whose loneliness and various disappointments in making connection lead us to reflect on what may lie beyond rationality.  It’s quirkily funny and disquieting; the mundane and the supernatural are on teasing terms; and it’s beautifully acted and consummately well-paced in James Macdonald’s engrossing production.

The play is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, site of the bloodiest battle in the American Civil War.  A young couple stop here on their way home from Thanksgiving with her family.  Their relationship is not going well.  Elias (Tom Mothersdale) is the buff; Jenny (Anneika Rose) is humouring him, but she has menstrual cramps, which means he has to do the graveyard ghost tour alone.  She’s spooked to find that the b & b – which is an overdecorated temple to cosy kitsch (knick-knacks on every specially-built surface)  – has the same doll that used to scare her as a child.  

The establishment’s rather desperate attempts to be cute and humorous (which include a breakfast nook called “Paris” and a piano that leaps into self-playing life if touched) might be thought a tad sinister, as could the eccentricity of the landlady, Mertis, who is brilliantly played by Marylouise Burke.  She captures the note of dithery plaintive chirpiness to perfection. The cast is completed by June Watson, who is wonderfully blunt and imperious as Mertis’s blind friend, Genevieve.  This latter tells a tale of how she became convinced that her ex-husband had taken possession of her soul. The story is wildly funny in its bizarre extremity (she tells us that she checked herself into an institution only to discover that he had insinuated himself into the minds of all the doctors and nurses) but it takes its due place in a play where all the women have had or are having oppressive marriages (Jenny’s is in the process disintegrating now) and where the boundaries between one person and another and between the living and the dead are up for dispute,

Is this house haunted?  Genevieve thinks so.  Mertis demurs and makes embarrassed excuses about “the Jackson Room” which she admits is “temperamental”.  But she also refers to the house’s past as a hospital during the War when they had to throw so many amputated limbs through the window that you could not see in or out.  “Do you ever feel watched?” she asks the young couple (the nature of a doll’s personality is one of the play’s preoccupations as is the question of whether a woman needs validation from the gaze of a man or a masculine god).  Mertis, who is a tremendous character, does the meta-theatrical honours by pushing the main curtains open and shut between the acts and moving the hands of the grandfather clock forward between scenes.  Taking her time of course, but then this is an Annie Baker play and you savour every moment.

Until 3 March (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

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