Notwithstanding a few gems, and unless the next couple of weeks yield something really special (Anita Dobson and Katie Price job-sharing in panto, anyone…?), 2015 can’t be considered to have been an absolutely vintage year for London theatre, overall. And things have now reached a new low at the National with Ian Rickson’s production of Wallace Shawn’s latest play Evening at the Talk House. When Rickson’s production started previewing last week, it wasn’t long before the verdict was in via Twitter, with several people deeming the play to be “the worst thing ever staged at the NT” or even “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” “What does Twitter know?” sniffed the man seated next to us before last night’s performance began. Well, in this case, quite a lot, as it happens.
It’s true that knee-jerk reactions on social media can mean that a stark “good or bad” consensus can build around a production too quickly these days. This happened almost exactly three years ago at the Royal Court, with Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, a play that that was immediately – and, in my view, unfairly - dismissed by most early commentators online.
Actually, Evening at the Talk House shares some similarities with Crimp’s play: notably, a jaundiced view of the contemporary world and the workings of power therein. But where In the Republic of Happiness was illuminated by moments of great theatrical brio and passages of very beautiful, intelligent writing, Evening at the Talk House is a leaden, pitifully half-baked creation. There’s a hint of Agatha Christie – and even of Theatre of Blood – to the premise, which concerns the reunion of a group of theatricals at the club they used to frequent, and the strong suggestion that one of the assembled company may mean the others harm.
But, after a relatively promising (if exposition-heavy) first twenty minutes (which includes the production’s only arresting image, as the protagonists silently reunite, while Josh Hamilton’s playwright, Robert, introduces them to us), the play gets worse as it goes along. It’s as if Shawn had written down a list of issues that were irking him - declining cultural standards, TV versus theatre, the terror threat and the response to it, the seductions of nostalgia - without really bothering to shape them into a cogent dramatic form. Sure, there’s enough topicality to certain references to generate a few uneasy audience titters. But the approach to the themes is so feeble that the play builds no tension, no cumulative force. The revelation of what some of the characters are up to isn’t shocking or even chilling, as it’s clearly meant to be. Rather, it’s just silly and unconvincing.
Rickson’s dour, lackadaisical production can’t get a rhythm going, for all that The Quay Brothers’ design tries to inject a bit of mild Gothic ambience into the proceedings. The actors (including Shawn himself in the decidedly masochistic role of a luckless, beaten-up actor named… Dick) don’t find their footing, either. There’s a wonderful moment when Sinéad Matthews and Anna Calder-Marshall, as the club’s hostesses, first appear together. But even these two great actresses – specialists in magnetic eccentricity, the both of them – don’t distinguish themselves here. (Using her beautiful raspy-squeaky voice for all its worth, Matthews’ valiant effort to bring some emotional truth to a final encounter is palpable – and painful.) Ultimately, the limp material seems to have defeated everyone. Written without insight, wit or shapeliness, Evening at the Talk House is inert on the stage, lacking even the energy or the craziness to be labelled a true folly.
Booking until 30th March.