The Open House
The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018
Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.
I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.
Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.
Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.
Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.