ARID, PRETENTIOUS, POINTLESS
The last American import Rufus Norris brought to the National – The Motherf—-er with the Hat – was a five-mouse delight, a bold choice which rightly just won a Best Play award. Less welcome is this Wallace Shawn premiere, with the author himself bagging the weirdest and probably the most rewarding role, as a moribund old has-been TV actor , Dick.
He doesn’t turn up for the first fifteen minutes, which are occupied by a long narrative monologue by Robert (Josh Hamilton) who explains that it’s a ten-year reunion of the team from his play “Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars”. It was convened by Ted, who wrote the music and now does occasional advertising jingles, and includes Annette the wardrobe mistress – large , glum, and broke – and Bill the producer, now a “talent agent”. The only other one who is still successful is Tom (Simon Shepherd in matinee-idol mode) as the hero of Robert’s ongoing TV soap. Robert now feels, and smugly announces, that theatre “came to seem a rather narrow corner”, and that the 30-minute TV show is the thing. Coming to this endless monologue cold, you muse that the man is a right prat, and worriedly hope that this is deliberate. Then Dick (Shawn himself) materializes, pretty drunk and lately “beaten up by some friends, a short battering, informal” , and finally the rest of them arrive.
And indeed they are all pretty frightful, endlessly and circularly discussing (in a sort of Beckett-and-soda manner) who liked who, who was a good actor, and which of their acquaintance has dropped dead. Some relief is offered by the landlady (Anna Calder-Marshall, playing it just sufficiently odd) and the maid, the wonderful Sinéad Matthews, always a treat. The tedium of the men’s conversation – mostly woefully static, despite being directed by Ian Rickson – is relieved a bit by Shawn’s surrealism: there is a government somewhere which is doing a universally approved “programme of murdering” people who “pose a threat to us”. Topical, at least. It transpires that the maid has just got back from a murdering job “mainly in Nigeria and Indonesia”, and Matthews’ account of this – and her final meltdown- provide the few streaks of arresting sincerity in the piece.
It’s all too artfully knowing and nudgingly self-referential to engage you much, despite the best efforts of a fine cast. It would help, perhaps, if he went the full horror-movie, and had Calder-Matthews poisoning the lot of them with her Emerald Surprise punch.
At one point, at least, it is properly confirmed that Robert is indeed a prize prat , with Dick doing a reading from his celebrated play. It is pure Game-of-Thrones or sub-Tolkien nonsense, full of names like Beltramidon and Queen Ameldra of Garmor, and warriors eating “the meat of the golden antelope” after defeating some Marmidons.
Shawn’s play lasts 105 minutes. It is more than enough.
box office 020 7452 3000 to 30 March
rating one. Just. For Sinead Matthews. Otherwise, verging on