Dorfman, National Theatre – until 8 January 2019
In this troublous nation, 2018 seems to be the Christmas of Aaargh! and Eughhh! and hahahahaaa!, as a gross-out gigglefest sweeps London theatre. There’s the McDonagh Veryveryvery at the Bridge, Burke and Hare hilariously murderous at the Jermyn, Patricia Highsmith brandishing a knife up West, and now this: Anthony Neilson’s knowingly gothic take on Edgar Allen Poe’s famous first-person narrative.
Remember? The lodger so fascinated and repelled by a kindly old landlord’s huge never-closing “eye of a vulture” that he kills him, chops him up under the floorboards but at last confesses, in hysterics, because he still hears the heart beating under the floor. It is, of course, his own heart: thudding guilt, a moral metaphor.
So here is the 2018 version: Tamara Lawrence as a smart young playwright who has just turned down an award with a stirring speech about how art needs to be about flaws and failure, not success. There will be a backstory to explain her attitude tacked on at the end, rather pointlessly. Meanwhile, though, stuck on her second play she rents an attic in Brighton to write in, and is befriended by the gabby, needy, fey young landlady whose horribly deformed eye…yep, you guessed it!
Lawrence is splendid in the character, very much the boho sophisticate, sexually adventurous and keen on snorts of cocaine. She is patronisingly kind to Imogen Doel’s garrulously pally landlady, urging her to take off her plastic eye mask and be seen, loved, and accepted as her full self. All very PC. But when the huge comedy-swollen eye is revealed to her, looking like those Halloween joke ones on a spring, the writer shrinks and shrieks. And as she becomes ever more cowed and repelled, gales of laughter cross the audience.
Which rather gives a sense of he piss being taken. The professional theatre right now spends endless effort on telling audiences and critics never to comment unfavourably on anyone’s features, physicality , size, age, disability or visually unlikely casting. Yet here it is, in the heart of the Dorf, overtly demanding unkind merriment over a deformity. So while solemnly warning us of “strobe lighting, provocative language, some violent scenes, and moments and themes that some people may find distressing” , the NT offers not a word of caution to the facially abnormal. Who may, what do I know? be affronted at the idea that one look at their horrid features might provoke a sensitive artistic spirit to cut their throats with a pizza wheel.
But never mind. Let’s not be more po-faced than the theatre itself: we get a grand murder, plenty of gory chop-up nonsense, and there are wonderful special effects nightmare sequences abetted by Francis O”Connor’s lovely attic set. Lawrence moves brilliantly between horror and comedy, and we all enjoyed being swept by a blood red spotlight of doom at one point . There are some arty flashforward interludes when all the house lights come on and a detective – David Carlyle – joins in. As it is all part-dream part-reality, he is alternately proving menacingly sharp or idiotically obsessed with his musical- theatre ambitions (“If you need a singer in a play call me..you won’t , you people never do!”) He does very good bad-singing.
By the way, talking of what is demanded of Carlyle, note that in another plot strand Neilson – like McDonagh and a couple of other bright gross-out playwrights in recent years – demonstrates his belief that the physical mechanics of hanging are simply hilarious. So watch out if that upsets you. Overall, though, it’s a mildly amusing schlock-horror piece, performed with comic brilliance and – by way of figleaf -a coda of moral seriousness on the subject of remorse. Two hours and a bit, with interval.
box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 8 Jan