Monday 5 February 2018

John at the National, or, All My Girlfriends Turn Into Little Green Insects, That Is My Tragedy

Like Annie Baker's previous play at the National, The Flick (seen in 2016), the first characteristic of this new work is the slow pacing. As in that earlier work there are longish stretches of time when nothing much is happening on stage. But the device is less successful on this occasion because the world upon which it is deployed is far less convincingly immersive.

In place of the decaying flea pit cinema of The Flick we are in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was perhaps unfortunate that I saw this the week after happening to re-watch the Gilmore Girls episode “The Road Trip to Harvard”. That features a B&B with similarly overwhelming décor and clinging hostess. Unlike The Flick, John never really convinced me I was somewhere fresh. The next problem is one of genre. Baker has thrown at least two together – romantic comedy – or at least mockery of it – and ghost/scary story. The scary stuff is too half hearted to really impact. The treatment of the romance is undermined by the fact that the central couple of millenials are so ghastly that I pretty quickly ceased to care whether they stayed together. Indeed, I felt the play never really established how on earth they had come to be together in the first place (again there was a rather unfortunate echo of last week's similarly unconvincing millenial couple in Donmar's poor Belleville).

The unsuccessful mash up is further compounded by Baker's weary mocking of the whole idea of theatre – something I've seen far too often before. This starts with the landlady Mertis's (Marylouise Burke) opening and closing of the symbolically red front curtain and continues with such things as her regular adjustment of the time on the grandfather clock and a really irritating speech about different genres in the last scene just in case we have been too dim to spot what Baker has been doing for the last 3 hours. Overall for me all the elements were too thin to really immerse me in the action, and to persuade me to give way to the slow pacing.

I also felt that Baker was more obvious, more forced in general here compared to the more organic and convincing build of The Flick. Genevieve's opening line of Act 2 (something along the lines of “that was the year I went mad”) is funny, but feels overly calculated. Likewise the invocation of ghosts of slavery and the Civil War (we've been here many times before and much more powerfully in American culture) and the tiresomely familiar reveal in Act 3 which at least anyone in the Stalls ought to be able to spot coming a mile off – again the obviousness of it undermines the effect. I'm pretty sure these things are deliberate, part of Baker's mocking, perhaps she would say playing, with the form. But as I've said many times before it is extremely difficult to do that and still give your play real emotional impact, and here Baker for me joins the list of those who've failed so to do.

All of this is a pity because The Flick demonstrated that Baker's slow approach can pack enormous punch, and that she is capable of powerful, moving characterisation. And John does have some wonderful passages. Mertis's catalogue of collective terms for birds has a lovely poetry, while such wacky lines as the one roughly quoted in my title (Elias explaining why all his relationships fail) are very funny. There's also a great moment (if we ignore the bizarre interference with the interval in which it occurs) when Mertis's blind friend Genevieve discusses a troop of Buddhist monks marching through her brain.

The ensemble is strong. Burke has in Mertis much the most interesting character on stage and makes the most of it – it's refreshing to have a quirky, mature woman centre stage (which makes the undermining of realism sadder). June Watson's Genevieve has absolutely commanding presence and it's a pity we don't see more of her. Anneika Rose (Jenny) and Tom Mothersdale (Elias) do their best with their unsympathetically written characters and I'd be interested to see them both in more strongly written parts. They're well supported by director James Macdonald – if movement and touch too rarely strike home it's the fault of the work not him.

For the second week in a row, following the Donmar's Belleville, the set is the most arresting element of the show. Chloe Lamford's has given Mertis's B&B a brilliant, overwhelming clutter, cleverly, fussily lit (again fitting with Mertis's character) by Peter Mumford. But it did make me wonder were there no photographs on the internet (seems unlikely) and if there were why on earth have our millenials decided to stay there – the marriage of the two never quite convinces. I also had a sadly dashed hope that the play might at some point involve smashing some of the many objects – I'm quite sure the failure of that to materialise is also deliberate on Baker's part – but the play could really have used a bit more drama of that kind.

As the third act dragged on (as with so many new plays Baker has problems ending) I was increasingly bored. The play divided the audience near me, a few people several rows in front gave it a standing ovation, but I overheard a lady on the way out saying she certainly wasn't going to be recommending it. My partner was much more successfully immersed than I. Overall, there are moments of beauty, some strong performances, an impressive set, but I'm not convinced it's enough to compensate for the irritations and the demand for three hours plus of the viewer's time.

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