Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre)

This is a world premiere of a new play by Wallace Shawn, who also stars in this 100 minute piece running at the Dorfman Theatre until April.

The set is that of a club called the Talk House, where the assorted characters in the play used to meet regularly ten years ago, when they were cast and crew members in a successful theatre production called ‘Midnight In a Clearing With Moon and Stars’.

In Bob’s lengthy opening monologue (which sets the tone for what is to follow, ponderous, over-explanatory and rather dull), we hear about how the reunion came to pass, and see each character being introduced – Nellie, Jane, Ted, Annette, Tom, Bill, and Dick, the gate crasher played by Shawn, the actor who has clearly fallen on hard times.

Soon it becomes apparent that this is not the world as we know it.  Theatre ‘no longer exists’ by state decree.  A ‘Programme of Murdering’ removes undesirables both abroad and closer to home.  Ordinary looking and sounding people talk of targeting and assassinating as if it is just a normal bodily function.  There is an air of menace hanging over proceedings …

… the trouble is, nothing happens other than 100 minutes of talk, which includes descriptions of murders of people we know nothing about, and constant ‘did you hear what happened to Y’ and ‘do you remember X’ just alienates an audience who simply does not care about the characters in front of them, let alone a parade of people off the set who simply do not matter.

I liked the way the set (by the Quay Brothers) and lighting design at least tried to conspire together to convey a sense of movement and transition in this play, but the writing stops it flat, despite the basic premise being quite an intriguing, if naïve, idea.  The contrast between the forced bonhomie of colleagues who probably never liked each other anyway with the beatings and killings in which they are regularly involved feels forced.

In the cast, apart from Shawn as the failed and battered actor, we have Anna Calder-Marshall as the kindly Nellie, the Talk House’s proprietress, .Josh Hamilton as sniffy Bob, Sinead Matthews as Jane the waitress turned assassin who longs for death, Joseph Mydell as the idealistic Bill, Naomi Wirthner as costume designer Annette who was everyone’s confidante and who now has a heart of ice, Stuart Milligan as Ted the on the surface nice guy, and Simon Shepherd as successful yet vacuous TV personality Tom.

Shawn is feted as one of America’s foremost dramatists, but even those with that status sometimes need to be reined in.  Alhough Ian Rickson does his best with direction, this play goes nowhere and does so at a funereal pace.  By the ending, which doesn’t really make much sense, we have stopped caring, which might explain the audience grumbling when the lights go down and the silence before the grudging applause.