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John Anneika Rose as Jenny and Tom Mothersdale as Elias in John. Photo © Stephen Cummiskey

John
By Annie Baker
Dorfman Theatre, Lambeth, London SE1 9PX
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/john/whats-on

In a month when Britain got a Minister for Loneliness, Annie Baker's new play is itself a rather timely odyssey around the shores of human isolation. It explores why people decide to stay together, or not.

John follows on the heels of her Pulitzer winner, The Flick, widely acclaimed here last year. There, the audience was faced by a bank of cinema seats and we whiled away the hours observing the motley bunch of cleaners and ushers. For this one we are transported to a disturbingly cutesy B&B in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, the home to the Civil War heritage trail.

Baker's plays famously take their time (this is 3 hours 20 minutes) and she challenges the very notion that dramatic action must have incident. You've heard of slow cooking. Think of this as slow theatre. If you do let it gently flow over you however (and many won't) it does offer up a myriad of pleasures.

Designers must love Baker. Her plays allow time for the eye to roam and Chloe Lamford recreates here in minute detail the kitschy desperation of this B&B. The chirpy, elderly, owner Mertis (Marylouise Burke) has a thing for dolls and so every shelf and lintel is stuffed with porcelain angels and figurines of every kind. There's even an unreliable pianola, which suddenly churns out cheery tunes. Peter Mumford's lighting perfectly captures the variations in light throughout a day which bathe this eerie scene.

Burke (the only one from the original US cast) gives a beautifully judged performance as the endearing but unnerving host, who fancies herself as a mind reader and enquires of everyone whether you “ever felt watched as a child”. The more time spent with her the less you feel you know. Quite a triumph for an actor.

The protagonists (if that word even applies here) are the young guests, a couple intent on torturing each other with tests of fidelity. There is nebbish Elias (Tom Mothersdale), seemingly permanently persecuted, with morbid phobias and frequent “brain zaps”, a side-effect of going off anti-depressants. With him is his more upbeat girlfriend Jenny (Anneika Rose) who, when laid low by period pains, gladly gets to skip some sightseeing and recounts to Mertis stories of her childhood, plagued with anxieties and superstitions, thinking her dolls were sentient. She also describes an incident of mystical happiness experienced under the huge sky of New Mexico.

Mertis is a keen listener but her blind friend Genevieve (June Watson), who later visits the trio, is a more forbidding and oracular, figure. She describes a time when she says she went crazy and was psychically possessed by the spirit of her ex-husband, John. Watson commands the stage with her usual aplomb.

James Macdonald's direction has a consummate control of mood throughout and the performances are just perfect but their efforts here to hold an audience rapt, for all this time, with this quirky quartet does not have the pay-off which we got with The Flick.

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John June Watson as Genevieve and Marylouise Burke as Mertis in John. Photo © Stephen Cummiskey

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