In a city awash with Pantos and feel-good festive shows, it is only natural that my macabre sensibilities were attracted to Anthony Neilson’s adaptation of “The Tell-Tale heart” at the Dorfman Theatre. Loosely based on the Poe short story, this reimagining sees a writer (Tamara Lawrance) escape London in order to try and overcome writers block and write her new play, and befriending her landlady (Imogen Doel), before things go very, very array. Part dark comedy, part horror, this is a brave step away from the traditional heart-warming festive shows around London in the post-Christmas limbo.
It is difficult to explain “The Tell-Tale Heart” without giving much away, especially as there are so many secrets until the very last moments, but the performances are so strong that you trust the cast with whatever is coming next. Lawrance’s character is pressurised from all sides – haunted by past decisions, present habits and future commitments. In the role she is charismatic and relatable, which makes the play all the more unsettling. Doel also gives a fantastic performance as a lonely and desperately clingy young woman dealing with the trauma of losing her brother, mother and years of bullying. David Carlyle plays dual roles as two very different detectives, and though both are minor roles in relation to the central plot he excels in both, in turns both camp and hilarious, intimidating and stern.
I was gripped by their performances and the Neilson’s direction almost all the way through, with a notable exception in how they chose to show the writer lose her sanity. What is arguably the most interesting part of the story is reduced to a voice over of her internal dialogue, in a voice that, unless I am much mistaken, is not Lawrence’s. It had the effect of distancing the character from her downward spiral, so that when it came time to act it did not seem logical. It’s disappointing, but easy to overlook.
On paper, the odds seem stacked against Neilson to make light of the show’s topics. In spite of this, and of the grizzliness of the play, you can’t help but laugh. The gratuitous nightmares that Lawrence’s character suffers are so over the top it walks the line between making the audience laugh and scream, such as when she awakes to find her bed has been filled with boiled eggs. Neilson’s wit also shines through in the script, mixed with lines that give you pause for thought. In the opening, for instance, what appears to be an award acceptance speech has in it some gems like “If sports is the celebration of success, arts is the celebration of failure”.
Make no mistake, Neilson is proud of his work; the meta humour, while very amusing, is indulgent and smug. At times it feels like a show made for thespians alone, as Carlyle’s detective reflects on how a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” (which, by no coincidence whatsoever, is currently on at the Gielgud Theatre) didn’t live up to his expectations. I’m in two minds about this, since you may well roll your eyes at the fan service, but on the other hand he has every right to be smug. This is a really smart, scary play with an ending that is both shocking and outrageously exaggerated as all the threads are tied together, and a little gore is added for good measure. It’s a real find for someone seeking something a little different, though it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Four stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"Surprising and funny, they looked almost embarrassed by the end though"