Review: Evening at the Talk House, National Theatre ‘Dire’

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Do you remember that episode of Friends when Joey was starring in an ordinary, if mediocre, drama when suddenly, at the climax, a step-ladder drops on to the stage to take Joey up into his spaceship? Right. Well, Evening at the Talk House is the theatrical equivalent of that. It is both utterly average and completely nuts.

The set-up is a familiar one – old friends whose lives have all panned out so differently meet for a reunion. Some have gone on to great success, others have struggled and are bitter with resentment. And that is how Evening at the Talk House starts – the Talk House being the once-glorious members’ club where the friends used to meet, which has now fallen into disrepair and irrelevance.

Actor Tom (Simon Shepherd) and writer Robert (Josh Hamilton) are wealthy and successful, whilst washed-up actor Dick (Wallace Shawn) is a mess. He’s out of work, an alcoholic, is beaten to a pulp in unprovoked attacks from strangers in the street, and has been abandoned by everyone he once thought of as a friend.

You sense a reckoning is due. That is what we are expecting.

Only it never materialises.

Ever.

Evening at the Talk House

Instead this play reveals, through meandering clumsy and exposition-heavy dialogue, that we are in a dystopian future. The State (we’re going to assume this is America here) has adopted an execution program where perceived enemies – both international and domestic – are killed through a combination of government-employed assassins and drone strikes.

And who are these people volunteering to work as government killers? Why, out-of-work actors, of course. How else can these guys supplement their income?

And so you think, ok, maybe we’re going to see some murders from those characters that are struggling actors. Maybe this reckoning will be a decimation of the successful? Well, don’t get your hopes up as that doesn’t happen either.

Because nothing happens in this play. Nothing. Happens.

Evening at the Talk House

The set-up is a bizarre one, for sure, but it’s one that could work if it was set in the right location and if it was complimented with tight, exciting writing, and a plot that delivers what it promises. However, in this regards, this show comprehensively fails.

The writing is, simply, dire. The characters are caricatures and conversation between them is ridiculous, an excuse for obvious and unoriginal debate about our prejudices and the horror of unchecked state power.

In truth, I feel I’m still making this play sound more interesting than it is. It isn’t interesting. It’s unbelievably dull. And so, so odd.

There are constant references to former friends who have been killed. Only we never see or hear anything about these guys other than ‘oh, you know they killed Jake’, and ‘you didn’t hear what happened to Bob?’ type thing. Who these people are, we never find out.

Then there are prolonged and curious exchanges about political elections between candidates we’ve never heard of, and an obligatory sub-plot of a former relationship between two of the characters that feels shoe-horned in.

Evening at the Talk House

I genuinely have absolutely no idea what this story was trying to interrogate, or what message it was attempting to convey. I can’t even forgive it as a poor didactic play as I have no idea what the point of it all was.

The awkwardness in the audience was palpable. There is a point about two-thirds of the way through when one of the characters, who is struggling with her work as one of these assassins, confides that she has had enough. ‘I just want to die’ she says. The barely-suppressed murmur in the auditorium was very much, ‘Yep, we know how you feel.’

Never has a 100-minute play felt so long.

I’ve been trying to work out how this production was given the go-ahead at the National, or why it wasn’t stopped when it became apparent that it was this bad.

I suspect the reason is due to the talent attached. For Evening at the Talk House is a new play from Wallace Shawn who writes as well as stars (in fact, this run at the National is its world premiere). And I suspect there we have the nub of the problem.

When you agree to put on a premiere from such a high-profile actor/writer (the show is also produced in association with Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin) it’s questionable how much feedback you’re allowed to give. Basically you have to run with what you’ve got. And, sadly, the National is stuck with a shocker.

Not even Director Ian Rickson seems to have brought any relief to it. I suppose I have to be thankful that at least the agony wasn’t prolonged with an interval.

But you know, maybe that will end up working in its favour. Evening at the Talk House is so bad that, perhaps, people will flock to see just how bad it really is. Maybe it will be talked about for years as ‘that crazy play’, or become the barometer for all awful productions to come – ‘I mean, I know that play was bad but at least it wasn’t as crazy as Evening at the Talk House.’

So maybe that will bring the curious flocking. However, I wouldn’t really recommend that. Theatre tickets are pricey and there are some good shows out there. See those instead.

It’s the actors I feel sorry for though. The stunned silence that greeted the curtain call was embarrassing. And I suspect the actors will have five long months of that ahead. Painful. Agonisingly painful.

National Theatre, London to March 30, 2016

Note: I did see a preview so, who knows, maybe the entire thing will have been rewritten by Press Night. God, I hope so.

Image Credits: Production Photographer: Catherine Ashmore

  1. A scene from Evening at the Talk House
  2. Wallace Shawn – Dick
  3. Naomi Wirthner – Annette, Anna Calder-Marshall -Nellie, Josh Hamilton – Robert, Wallace Shawn – Dick
  4. Josh Hamilton – Robert, Sinéad Matthews – Jane

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12 comments

  1. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi Louise. Thanks for your comment. I can only hope that you got something from the show – it certainly sounds like it’s got you thinking! But I agree that it was unequivocally a missed opportunity.

  2. Posted by Louise Penn, at Reply

    Saw this today. I haven’t fully put my thoughts together yet. There was a smattering of applause at the curtain call but it was certainly reluctant and the house was half empty. A totally missed opportunity.

  3. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi Bethan. Thank you for taking the time out to comment here. It was such a frustrating show, wasn’t it? And I too booked this ages in advance in anticipation. Theatre isn’t cheap and it is such a shame when you go with high hopes and are left baffled. I hope you have better experiences with your next visit to the theatre.

  4. Posted by Bethan Way, at Reply

    I wish there HAD been an interval; l would have left and l’m certain at least one more of my party would have joined me – nay l am sure that we all would have made it way to the nearest bar. It was boring, oh so boring. The conversation seemed artificial and without any depth or clarity. We did not understand what was happening. We booked this a while in advance and saw no reviews; now l know that one opinion does not make a truth, but Victoria Sadler’s was so detailed that l suspect that we would have given this a miss in favour of something else – in fact l am annoyed to think that we could have spent our money on something good – something that we understood (for this we did not understand one bit: not its direction; not its meaning and not its idiosyncrasies. One of our party dozed for a while and another said that she had tried to, but failed. Perhaps like the play: tried, but failed.

  5. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi Johnny. I think WOS was also generous in their praise so it really did divide people. I know it’s great that art challenges and provokes but I have to admit, I am surprised that opinions on this show weren’t more uniform. I struggle to think why you would applaud this – sadly.

  6. Posted by JohnnyFox, at Reply

    Excellent dissection Victoria! Seems only The Independent is out of step with its 4-star review, and The Arts Desk also claimed to see good in it – but it must be hard for those poor dears to type with only one free hand. Otherwise, a round of one-star wonders, including mine:

    http://johnnyfox.co.uk/reviews/review-evening-at-the-talk-house-national-theatre-dorfman/

  7. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    You do feel you want others to go just so they can understand, don’t you? It’s a shame as I love theatre and want people to go for the right reasons. I do hope some people are able to enjoy it but, for me, it was agony. Sadly.

  8. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi. That’s such an interesting observation as it’ll be interesting to see if there are significant numbers who come out singing its praises. I know art divides but it’ll be interesting to hear from those who got something out of the show.

  9. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Thanks for your comment. Yes the play isn’t great at all and I’m sorry you had the same experience as me. The lack of reviews I suspect is because the show has its official opening tomorrow night so expect the flood of reviews on Wednesday morning. We shall see whether they agree!

  10. Posted by Jennifer, at Reply

    Thank you Victoria. I’ve just got back from sitting – and briefly sleeping – through this play. You have summed my evening up perfectly with your brilliant review. I love the idea of people flocking to see the play so they too can experience its awfulness. I hope they do.

  11. Posted by Peter Silverton, at Reply

    oh dear, i do have to agree with every single word of this – as i left i said to my fellow survivor (who had the luck to sleep quietly for the play’s central section): now i know how the little boy felt when he noticed the emperor’s wardrobe infelicity . . .

  12. Posted by Madeleine Meyer, at Reply

    Thank god! First that I FOUND an actual review (I’d almost given up googling, because even though I used the word “review” in my search, everything that came up linked back to the National. I suspected the theatre had somehow deleted all the reviews because they must all have been uniformly awful.) Second, this review is spot on, exactly what my friends and I thought. Dire. The poor actors took a second curtain call even though virtually no one clapped during the first round. When the audience filed out, the word people kept using to each other was “bizarre”. But bizarre is too flattering. Bizarre implies there is SOMETHING to this play, that it has some substance, but it doesn’t. Neither is it the opposite, ethereal. Unless you go with the “out of this world” definition. Oh, wait. That’s just wishful thinking on my part. But then some other world would have to sit through it. The closest word I can think of is “unintelligible”, but then that implies there was something to understand. There wasn’t. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.