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BWW Review: BURIED CHILD, Trafalgar Studios, 1 December 2016


This revival of Sam Shepard's apocalyptic 1978 play has gained resonance since 2016's most apocalyptic political development - namely, Donald Trump cynically harnessing Midwestern anger and disillusionment. The latter is on display in heightened, American Gothic form in this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, teeming with tragic mysteries, family skeletons and a (literally) buried past.

Scott Elliott's New York production transfers with its headline couple: Ed Harris and wife Amy Madigan, here playing the decrepit patriarch of an ailing Illinois farm and his chilling spouse, who spouts religious judgement amidst inane babble - often as a godlike disembodied voice from upstairs. This study of intergenerational damage also features a son who (never explained) cut off his leg with a chainsaw, another who's mentally disturbed, and prodigal grandson Vince, who no one can remember.

Elliott's production is most effective as a mood piece, lulling us with the drip-drip of constant rain, the lowering of lights, the musical rhythms of embittered, entrenched bickering - matching the numbing of Harris's depressive farmer with pills and whiskey hidden in the sofa. It's slow and deliberate as a plough, but rich in detail, both verbal and - thanks to the symphony of faded, clashing prints that is Derek McLane's set, thoughtfully lit by Neil Austin - visual.

Given that, it's a tad annoying to have two short intervals; understandable given the three very distinct acts, but it yanks us out of a world which requires a good 10 minutes of re-immersion. A different pacing would allow us to cope with the first two acts run together, and would reduce a pretty hefty running time.

Harris gives a superbly nuanced performance, one suited to this relatively cosy West End venue. He provides glimpses of what was once a towering figure, now reduced to childlike dependence on others and hopelessly wedded to his addiction. It's one of several studies of masculine crisis: Gary Shelford's furiously hobbling Bradley compensates for disability with OCD and violent outbursts, while Barnaby Kay is heartbreakingly poignant as a traumatised Tilden, and Jeremy Irvine - though he takes time to find Shepard's poetic rhythms - unravels in spectacular fashion. Jack Fortune is scene-stealingly brilliant as a horrified visiting priest.

But the women more than hold their own. The matriarch with delusions of grandeur maintains a claw-like grip on her family, even in her absence, and Madigan layers shifting emotions beneath Halie's determinedly flat, controlled delivery, until revelations destroy her equilibrium. Shelly, who drove up with Vince from New York, expects Norman Rockwell and instead is confronted with a basement of grotesques - Charlotte Hope is excellent at conveying that dawning horror, sunny optimism gradually dimmed by ever-more unsettling encounters.

It's certainly not subtle in its symbolism, and could have benefitted from a few more darkly humorous moments to knowingly undercut some of the looming portent. Elliott's reverent naturalism doesn't entirely work; there isn't a clear sense of place for a piece apparently steeped in Rust Belt agriculture, yet Shepard's play is far more macabre fable than kitchen-sink realism. Jamie Lloyd had more success with his recent expressionistic version of The Homecoming at this venue - showing a boldness missing here. But as a timely study of despair, disenfranchisement and the terrifying pull of the past, it's both mythic and affectingly intimate.

Buried Child at Trafalgar Studios until 4 March, 2017

Read our interview with Jeremy Irvine

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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