Three characters stranded in a county house while a blizzard rages. One of the group is lost in the storm outside. Might he have done himself in or been murdered? The phone lines are down and a clock ticks ominously…
Has the National seen sense and finally put on an Agatha Christie? Might that same clock tick for another 64 years and counting? Sadly not.
A pre-show discussion heard Andrew suggesting it might be based on the notorious red barn murder in Suffolk where Maria Marten was shot dead by her lover. Phil was blissfully unaware of that case, “Well if it’s a whodunnit that’s ruined it for me” grumped Phil.
Phew, Andrew was off the hook. Not that red barn thankfully. This is David Hare‘s The Red Barn based on George (Maigret) Simenon‘s La Main. Though there is still an element of whodunnit and whydunnit and more than an touch of whydoitlikethis?
We are in late 1960’s in Connecticut. Glamorous Ray (Nigel Whitmey) and Mona Saunders (The Night Manager‘s Elizabeth Debicki) are staying with their friends the deadly dull Donald Dodd (Mark Strong trying to hide his charisma under a Don Draper wig) and his wife, the equally dull but-misses-nothing wife Ingrid played by US import Hope Davis (Synecdoche, New York – Phil dares Andrew to watch it and see if he can make it through to the end).
The aforesaid have all been to a most glittering party but Ray’s gone AWOL, possibly in a snowdrift, on the way home. Donald tramps off into the snow and searches (or does he?) while Ingrid makes a plate of unappetising looking sandwiches which unsurprisingly no one is tempted by. Mona floats around being elegant, pale and very, very tall but doesn’t seem overly concerned about the fate of her hubby, but then nobody else seems that bothered either. That is until the storm abates an inordinately skeptical police lieutenant (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) turns up and questions them. He must have a very good memory as he doesn’t bring a note pad.
What happened at the party is revealed in brief flashbacks and what happens after the disappearance (Mona whips her tits out rather unnecessarily) is relayed in a series of dazzlingly designed scenes (Bunny Christie topping her toppest form) which unfold within filmic camera shutter blackouts. One revelation is voyeuristically revealed as the letterbox aperture widens slowly. Be careful where you sit some of the front side seats might have tricky sightlines.
Can’t say your money’s not up there on the stage: there’s perspex hanging chairs, an elevator and a door that is almost impossible to shut against the off-stage industrial fans (very The Hateful Eight) to list but a few of the visual dazzlements. Phil will turn a blind eye to the party balloons but appreciated the hostess trolley. At first Phil though that it was a pre-show glass of beer that led him to think that the Dodd house set was shifting slightly to the left each time it appeared. But it was moving. You’re watching it from a slightly different angle each time. It certainly added to Phil’s sense of unease.
Tom Gibbons’ terrifically creepy sound design works up some tension when it’s not blasting you out of your seat, but this is negated by the decision to get the actors to deliver their lines at the same monotonous, slowly measured pace. Were they directed by the ticking clock? No it’s Robert Icke playing the metronome here. It risks the languidly slow unfolding of Hitchcock’s Vertigo but doesn’t quite pull it off, though it runs an interval free 1 hour 45 minutes so we did not complain as it still allowed plenty of time for post-show dissection. And this was press night so a very early curtain.
Despite this we were still absorbed and engaged and the occasional longueurs gave Phil time to ponder whether the titular barn was a metaphor for Mr and Mrs Hare’s controversial garden shed extension.
And when did you last see a play that opens with a optician’s examination? Ingrid is told her vision is perfect; she’s the all-seeing wife. Yeah, even we got that.