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Review: THE TELL-TALE HEART, National Theatre

Review: THE TELL-TALE HEART, National Theatre Review: THE TELL-TALE HEART, National Theatre Every now and then you find yourself faced with a blank piece of paper and don't have a clue where to start. So it is for The Writer (actually a playwright) in The Tell-Tale Heart, and so it was for The Reviewer (me) when sitting down to write this. I'm struggling to recall a weirder evening at the theatre.

Anthony Neilson's new play is inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. The Writer, Celeste (Tamara Lawrance) has been thrust into the limelight after winning - and refusing to accept - an award for her first play. The National Theatre is now hounding her for her second, so she flees to a loft apartment in Brighton to try to escape the pressure and buy herself some time.

The Landlady, Nora (Imogen Doel) is Irish, perhaps lonely, perhaps needy, and keen to befriend and spend time with Celeste, regaling her with tales of porn she's watched... and eggs. She also wears a substantial plastic eye patch, having suffered from an 'eye condition' (revealed in all its glory midway through Act One) since birth. Anyone squeamish about eyeballs - or who can't stand eggs - should give this a wide berth.

To say too much about the actual plot would be to spoil the weirdness, but you'll find flashbacks, gore, murder, a detective (or more accurately two versions of a detective, both beautifully characterised by David Carlyle), night terrors, ghostly apparitions, animated furniture and everything in between. There's even a Christmas tree, since this is after all one of the National's festive offerings this year.

So let's deal with the good stuff first.

The set (design by Francis O'Connor) features a vast, glorious sloping window and bathroom annex with clever two-way wallpaper. Beautiful video design (Andrzej Goulding) brings to life the world outside with changing cloudscapes.

The night passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, the two main protagonists being females who talk about pretty much everything but men. Lawrance imbues The Writer with a winning mix of self-doubt, try-too-hard political correctness and arrogance, whilst Doel is utterly delightful as The Landlady, all inappropriate conversation and eagerness to please.

Theatre fans will also enjoy some of the more meta-theatrical aspects and knowing references, including a none-too-subtle sideswipe at one of the West End's current hottest tickets Company.

And what about the not-so-good stuff?

I suppose, since it's based on Edgar Allan Poe, a bit of macabre eccentricity is to be expected, but this show really goes above and beyond in that department. It's just a bit hard to get your head around at times.

There is goriness and tension, but it's delivered in such a way that it's too silly to actually be scary, yet played so as to leave you unsure how much you should be laughing.

It also feels muddled structurally, jumping around in time and blurring the lines between scenes. Are we in the real world? In The Writer's head? Or maybe even in the play she's struggling to write? This could be a factor of Neilson's modus operandi of workshopping and constant redrafting in collaboration with his cast, but it still feels like The Tell-Tale Heart could benefit from a bit more sharpening.

Well, like The Writer, I've eventually managed to get something down on paper. And also like her, I apologise to The National (specifically the PR team) for the slight tardiness of its delivery - but sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration to strike.

The Tell-Tale Heart at the National Theatre until 8 January, 2019

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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