National Theatre (venue)
29 January 2018 (released)
04 February 2018
Naturalism meets the supernatural in Annie Baker's new play, set in a deliciously kitsch B & B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But be warned; James Macdonald's production of 'John' is decidedly slow cooked. Running at 3hrs 20 mins it's likely to divide audiences who'll either love the ponderous 'real' time scenes or spend the three hours making 'to do' lists in their wandering minds. Either way, the flavours are subtle and rich with exceptional performances from the cast of four.
John is quirky funny and the first laugh ripples across the audience as Mertis played beautifully by US actor Marylouise Burke, slowly pulls back the heavy red curtains to reveal the cosy kitsch interior of her home. Chloe Lamford's capacious set, all decked out for Christmas, is a mesmerising fifth cast member. of the cast. There is plenty of time to examine every surface, glowing with china dolls, frilly lights, miniature train sets, clocks and floral fabrics. Mertis shuffles slowly around the space in her slippers until the sound of a car is heard pulling up out side and thirty something couple Jenny and Elias arrive from Manhattan.
Anneika Rose (Jenny) and Tom Mothersdale (Elias) bring this fractious couple to uncomfortable life, with their childlike demands and educated verbal war-fare. Anneika needs constant affirmation, accompanied by the ping of her whatsapp messages, with a longing to be 'less alone in my aloneness' while Elias struggles to maintain intimacy long-term as all his girl-friends start resembling insects after a few months. Baker has a wonderful capacity to find original specifics that draw laughs of surprise and recognition from the audience.
Whilst the narrative doesn't exactly propel you forward, the relationships and thematic explorations are constantly curious and compelling. Ghostly elements of the drama drip through the dialogue, 'Have you ever felt you're being watched?' Mertis innocently enquires. She professes herself a 'tiny bit of a mind reader' but refused to believe the house is haunted. Though she acknowledges that certain rooms in the house can be a bit 'temperamental' and mentions that her husband died in a horrific accident in the basement and the house was used as a hospital for amputating limbs in the Civil War which piled up outside, obscuring the windows. June Watson, extraordinary as her statuesque, blind friend Genevieve, has no doubt that the house is haunted. Though she is open about her descent into madness after she became convinced that her ex husband had taken possession of her soul and explains firmly that if she's not asleep by 9:30 'I fall into deep despair.'
As Mertis winds the arms of the grandfather clock forward, the drama unfolds moment by moment, layer upon layer. And if you're wondering who John is, you'll just have to book tickets.