Ed Harris in Buried Child Above: Ed Harris in Buried Child, Trafalgar Studios. Below: Amy Madigan. Photos: Johan Persson

Buried Child
By Sam Shepard, Directed by Scott Elliott
Trafalgar Studios, London
Reviewed by Jarlath OConnell
Limited Season until March 4 2017
Tickets and Showtimes: www.buriedchildplay.co.uk

All this talk of globalization and 'left behinds' gives this transfer from New York of Sam Shepard's great play some added resonance. We're in rural Illinois in 1978 when the country was in that post-Vietnam crisis of confidence, plagued by high inflation and with farms and rural communities going under. While Shepard is too much of a poet to do plays about 'issues', the disillusionment with the American Dream which was pervasive at that time is certainly mirrored in the fragmentation of this family. This, one of his best, is a cross between O'Neill and Pinter and he gives us a Greek tragedy about a family unable to bury its demons.

The father Dodge (Ed Harris), dressed All-American in check shirt and baseball cap, is firmly ensconced in the sofa, in a pit of depression, with a bottle of whisky tucked under his cushion. Upstairs we hear his busybody wife Halie (Amy Madigan) in her own domain, rabbiting on like Winnie in Happy Days, before she descends, the picture of provincial propriety, pontificating about the “stench of sin”, while blithely setting off for an actual tryst with her beloved pastor.

Amy Madigan in Buried Child

Dodge's two sons are in no better shape, both crocked in their own ways. There's the predatory man-child Bradley (Gary Shelford), who once amputated his own leg. He terrorizes his father with unwanted haircuts while the latter is asleep. There is also the haunted figure of Tilden (Barnaby Kay), recently returned home, who appears covered in muck and clutching root vegetables dug from a garden long thought to be fallow. He is drawn to that garden which we learn was the burial site of an unwanted infant of Halie''s. The third son, Ansel, was a sporting hero, now deceased, whom she still venerates.

Scott Elliott who directed it for his company The New Group, off Broadway, (it debuted in New York in 1979 where it won the Pulitzer) gives the piece time to breathe and it pays off. The silences and deadpan humour really enhance the atmosphere as does Derek McLane's great naturalistic set and Neil Austin's evocative lighting, which give us the feeling of time passing and life ebbing away. But Shepard writes such great dialogue and such quirky characters that there are no longeurs here. Every character is a mystery. Harris and Madigan, both with such great screen pedigrees, fit these roles like a pair of gloves and make for a divine acting duo. Elliott also expertly navigates the abrupt change of tone between the rather quirky first act and the much darker and sinister second.

The supporting roles too are very well cast. War Horse star Jeremy Irvine (he has three major movies coming out) plays the demanding role of the prodigal grandson Vince who turns up after 6 years, looking cool with his New York ways and with feisty girlfriend Shelly in tow. Game of Thrones star Charlotte Hope, in an impressive West End debut, gives Shelly a breezy, prickly edge and more than stands her ground against a veteran like Harris. She has come to the Midwest expecting “turkey dinners and apple pie” and is horrified to be abandoned with the family while Vince is sent off to stock up on booze. Like Ruth in The Homecoming this male clan get more than they bargained for with this young woman.

It's the first time we've seen Harris and Madigan on the West End stage and they must return soon. This is great American drama served up with confident panache.

>> MORE ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

© All contents of www.theamerican.co.uk and The American copyright Blue Edge Publishing Ltd. 1976–2017
The views & opinions of all contributors are not necessarily those of the publishers. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that all content is accurate
at time of publication, the publishers, editors and contributors cannot accept liability for errors or omissions or any loss arising from reliance on it.