Domestic situations on the stage are heavy going. No one wants to watch a group of relatives who hate each other argue for an hour and a half. The raised voices, quick fire insults and crying can lead to something that resembles an episode of EastEnders. Fortunately The Open House, a play which explores the dysfunctional dynamic of an American family, expertly balances comedy with the slow reveal of serious problems in the relationships between its characters.
Greg Hicks plays the father in a memorable performance which makes the show. He is unbelievably scathing to his wife, his children and their uncle. His sarcasm is off the charts and he often makes shrouded remarks which are simultaneously baffling and hurtful to them because of their cryptic intent. The uncle, played by Crispin Letts, is a quirky presence. He stands hovering behind the immediate family, peppering the stilted conversation with cheerful non sequiturs. It’s as if he’s immune to the bitterness and resentment in the room.
One by one, throughout the course of the show, the five actors leave the stage, only to return as new characters. By the end the family have disappeared entirely, to be replaced by a mismatched gaggle of strangers, all with a vested interest in their house. This seems to be about the transient nature of life – the fact that we are all just passing through, spiritually, but also within spaces like our homes. Death and the fragility of existence are prominent themes in the play. Indeed, two members of its volatile clan end up in hospital.
Despite the sometimes slow pace, The Open House doesn’t become tiresome. There are a lot of pauses, but they are pregnant pauses, there to denote humour or profundity. A brief cameo by an adorable fluffy dog is a risky move in terms of not disrupting the performance, but probably worth it for the ‘ahhs’ which emanated from the audience.
Written by the celebrated Will Eno, this is a deceptively simple production, where the unexpected does happen. The second half in particular is subversive, taking the audience down an ever more darkly comic path of events. All one continuous scene, the sole focus is the dialogue between the players, who convey enough depth and sensitivity to make something fascinating and worth going to see.
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