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