The Tell-Tale Heart at the National Theatre review ***

The Tell-Tale Heart

National Theatre Dorfman, 21st December 2018

No panto for the Tourist and family. This year’s entertainment was to be Anthony Neilson’s adaptation of the (in)famous Edgar Allan Poe short story about a writer who, let us say, loses a little bit of perspective. Some concern from our party, particularly those of a nervous disposition, as it gradually dawned on them what Dad had signed them up for, but I can cheerfully report that even LD took all the on-stage frights in her stride. For Mr Neilson, who is also directing, and the rest of the creative team, of which more later, have served up plenty of suspense and, occasionally gory, illusion but it is all undercut with humour and an air of wry parody. More Inside No 9 (though not quite as clever) than Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Now Poe’s original story runs to no more than a few pages and tells of a madman haunted by the “vulture eye” of an old man. His obsession turns to murder which he confesses in fairly short order. So a classic morality tale of crime and punishment with the twist that it is narrated by the unhinged first person. Poe built on the Gothic horror tradition created by Horace Walpole, becoming the father of the psychological horror which film-makers today can’t get enough of, and the scary eye has been a staple of creepy stuff from the dawn of human existence. Check out Odilon Redon’s famous 1883 illustration for a copy of the story shown above. But Mr Neilson was going to need a bit more than that to fill a couple of hours of stage time and to appeal to us jaded sophisticates so Poe’s story has been subjected to some substantial, and largely, successful expansion.

Tamara Lawrance (soooo good in the adaptation of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song on the Beeb recently) plays Camille (or maybe Celeste) a young writer, feted for her first play, but having a bit of difficulty following it up (an NT commission ha, ha). So she holes up in a top floor garret in Brighton, Shining style, to tackle her writer’s block. Her isolated landlady, Nora, an all-in performance from Imogen Doel, is the chatty type, at first a welcome distraction, then increasingly annoying. She comes with a bit of a macabre back-story and an ostentatious patch over one eye. It doesn’t end well.

The story is told through flash-backs and flash-forwards which also involve the copper(s) sent to investigate Nora’s disappearance. It takes a bit of time to get going, though the first half, as Camille and Nora get to, very closely, friend each other, and detective David Carlyle begins his menacing/camp interrogations, doesn’t lack for atmosphere, but the real pay-offs come in the second half, both visually, and plot-wise. Anthony Neilson is probably guilty of a few too many meta twists and references by the end(s), though it does ramp up the breathless WTF quotient, and it doesn’t entirely all hang together, but who cares when there is this much invention on stage.

For designer Frances O’Connor, together with the lighting of Nigel Edwards, the sound and composition of Nick Powell and, especially, the video work of Andrzej Goulding, and everyone in their teams, have conjured up a visual and aural feast. Of course it is artifice, and deliberately so in many cases to keep pace with the knowing tone, but it is still very effective, there are some genuine audience jumps, and, for the slightly sad members of the audience (hello Tourist), a source of endless fun in ticking off the various techniques employed. As the hair-raising manifestations of her own mental state, (or did this really happen or maybe this just a script?), mount up, Tamara Lawrance steps up, never for a moment giving less than 100% commitment. Imogen Doel, and especially David Carlyle, have more in the way of comedy to deliver, which they plainly relish, and there are even a few unsubtle, though still funny, poo-based jokes.

Anthony Nielson I gather is a bit of a one for the collaborative, workshopping approach and his, and I assume, the rest of the creative team’s itch to pack in as much as they can in terms of plot, gags, schlock and stagecraft often shows, but this is still, for the most part, a thoroughly entertaining show that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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