Dorfman, National Theatre – until 8 January 2019
Expectations are high for a festive ghost story from the National. With its world-class resources, the theatre offers a wondrous potential to stage the most chilling of tales and when the source material is a famed Edgar Allan Poe short chiller, the anticipation is only heightened. But in Anthony Neilson’s The Tell-Tale Heart transplant, Poe’s gloriously gothic original is served up as a modern-day Christmas turkey.
There’s attempted humour in the script, as horror can often sit alongside carefully crafted comedy. But Neilson’s three-hander fuses The Writer, The Landlady, and The Detective, (Tamara Lawrance, Imogen Doel and David Carlyle respectively) with dialogue that is crass, tacky and often puerile. Where monologues should be advancing the narrative, a glib joke about a girl being bullied by everyone around her because of her looks is unforgivable. And in an unnecessary distraction, the text plays fast and loose with sexualities too.
Good horror works well when the terror is subtle and the special effects are strong. While there are some scary touches of genius from designer Francis O’Connor, Nick Powell’s music doesn’t quite hit the spot, and his sound design (where a strong bass heartbeat should be de rigueur) is woeful. Perhaps the truly killer finish comes from the Writer’s final words: “the play is shite anyway”.