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Friday 2 March 2018

John, Play by Annie Baker, National Theatre, Dorfman, London 9* out of 10

With "John", playwright Annie Baker (born 1981) confirms that she is a brilliant original voice in today’s American theatre. Mary Louise Burke is unforgettably brilliant as Mertis, the chatty self-effacing bed and breakfast host with flashes of depth. Because of its length of 3 hours 20 minutes "John" will appeal mostly to the more confirmed theatregoer.

Elias (Tom Mothersdale), a musician, and Jenny (Anneika Rose), a writer of questions for television quiz shows, are a couple in their late 20ies on their way back home to New York City from visiting Jenny’s parents in Ohio for Thanksgiving. Elias, who has a passion for American history has persuaded Jenny, who has other interests and says that she is not feeling all that well, to make a stopover in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. They have booked a stay in a quaint 19th century bed and breakfast, which is gothicly over-decorated with dolls and all kinds of kitschy paraphernalia. Their hosts are the chatty 72-year-old Mertis (Mary Louise Burke) and allegedly her husband who remains behind the scenes.

What follows is a series of conversations, punctuated by long silences and unexpected twists and turns from which we can glean that Jenny and Elias' (Asian-Jewish-neurotic-New York-hipster) relationship is going through a bit of an existential crisis.  Furthermore, there is more than meets the eye to Mertis and her blind friend Genevieve (June Watson). Moreover, the bed and breakfast with its bric-a-brac interior has somewhat of a life of its own.

Over 3 hours and 20 minutes not a lot happens on stage, but the conversations among the characters compelling and some indefinable threat hangs in the air as if things could seriously go off the rails at anytime. Conversations start with banal remarks and almost imperceptibly become in turn revealing, hilariously funny or moving in unexpected and entertaining ways.

On one level, “John” is classic sort of play telling a story with realistic characters. On another level, it is stunningly original in the way it makes the story unfold and with it our perceived understanding of the protagonists, their character traits and foibles. We watch like one listens in to conversations on the table next to us in a coffeehouse and is progressively drawn in, filling in the gaps with our imagination an exercise that is entertaining and rewarding.

The power of this production starts with the writing. After her success with her play "Flicks", the young playwright Annie Baker (born 1981) confirms that she is a brilliant original voice in today’s American theatre. In this production, the wonderful set (Chloe Lamford) and the great direction (James Macdonald), emphasising the physicality (movement, body-language) of the protagonists is perfectly attuned to the writing. As far as the character of Jenny is concerned, I imagine her more as Chinese or Korean-American and not South-East Asian American as the casting in this production implies; but all acting performances are of a high standard. June Watson’s disconcerting Genevieve is outstanding, Mary Louise Burke unforgettably brilliant as the chatty bed and breakfast host with flashes of depth. 

Because of its length of 3 hours 20 minutes, John is a play that will appeal mostly to the more confirmed theatregoer. But it is not overlong, every moment being valuable to the development of the characters and the plot and the potent silences are conducive to allowing the audiences to use their imagination and so play their part in making this production of “John” what it is: great theatre.

Playwright Annie Baker

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