Pictured above: Greg Hicks (Father), Lindsey Campbell (Daughter), Crispin Letts (Uncle), Ralph Davis (Son). All pics: Simon Annand
Ye gods, what’s that Tolstoy quote about families? “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”?
Without a doubt, American drama has a fine history of dragging theatre audiences through the miserable mangle of family life. Too often, in my perhaps limited experience, there’s rarely a great deal of variation going on. Theatre audiences are too frequently subjected to an unremittingly bleak, gloomy and “worthy” experience that only theatre would dare serve up.
The Open House is not one of these! It might even leave a lasting, positive imprint on the genre. It gives us tender relief, comedic balloon-popping and more than a mouthful of mischief. In short, this is an American family drama, but one of hope.
Father (excellently played by Greg Hicks) is wheelchair bound, after a stroke and heart problems. Mother (Teresa Banham, a study in carers’ repression and pain), Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) and Son (Ralph Davis) are hostage to his bile. Uncle (Crispin Letts) quietly observes and mediates.
This is a tyrant’s house. A place where expressions of love, past happiness, hope and playfulness are constantly and cruelly squashed. Where a man in physical – but more importantly, emotional – pain is allowed repeatedly to whip his prisoners with his poisonous tongue. Somewhere in the background is another adult child, Richard. He is a whisper in the story. Perhaps a creak in the family staircase – the one who got away. You’d never guess this was a wedding anniversary.
The house is beige. The curtains, drawn. The dog runs away, and one by one, the family leave, too: for sandwiches, a girlfriend, medicines, the hospital. Only Father is left.
And around halfway through – a second later would have been too much bile to bear – a fresh new energy appears. The stage itself seems to sigh with relief. Here is Anna (also played by Lindsey Campbell): a young woman who wouldn’t dream of tiptoeing around Father. She is his unwitting Nemesis – the estate agent he invited over without telling his wife. And after Anna come prospective buyer Brian (Letts), handyman Tom (Davis) and Brian’s cheery wife, Melissa (Banham).
They bring colour and light, quite literally. Their energy is palpable. Their manner, straightforward and a delight. And here, thank goodness, comes the comedy. Now, director Michael Boyd wholeheartedly repays the audience for undergoing that painful family reunion.
Bit by bit, line by line, sloppy pizza bite by bite, Father is subjected to the indifference of those who would buy the house he’s offering for sale. Tom Piper’s set undergoes a nifty transformation (“why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!”) No-one cares what Father thinks, and for the audience, this is truly cathartic. My only wish would be that we had more of this and less of the agony, but that’s how pay-offs work: you have to earn them.
And of course, there is the script. Will Eno has the ear of a demon – he has captured the modern, tyrannical, bitter parent and cruel man with chilling accuracy. There are too many good lines to share with you, but suffice to say we don’t normally talk about a woman killed in a tornado as though she ran off with the milkman.
Eno lances that cultural boil (the one that suggests that family equals pain) so deftly. It’s not for nothing that new buyer Brian asks, “Can you remove tear stains?” He knows, and he rejects that way of life. Boyd’s sharp and yet fun-loving production leaves us in no doubt at all – a happy family is a conscious thing and never a beast born of accident.
The Open House continues at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday, December 23. For more info and to book tickets, visit theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3029/The-Open-House/1523