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Buried Child review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘Ed Harris fills the stage’

Ed Harris, Jeremy Irvine, Charlotte Hope and Barnaby Kay in Buried Child, Trafalgar Studios. Photo Johan Persson

Buried Child is the antithesis of a memory play. First produced in 1978, but not staged on Broadway until 1996 when it was presented in a revised version, Sam Shepard’s play feels at times like an exercise in American folk horror.

Feeling a bit like Pinter’s The Homecoming with a chaser of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s a gloriously skewed piece of writing and this impressively unsettling revival, by US theatre company the New Group (coming to London following a run in New York) captures its odd, gothic atmosphere.

Ed Harris plays Dodge, a formerly fearsome patriarch withered by illness and reduced to stashing sipping whisky under his cushion. He can barely stand and – in a masterstroke of Derek McLane’s design, with its sun-faded wallpaper and leaking ceiling – appears almost to have merged with the sofa on which he spends his days. His wife Halie – crisply played by Ed Harris’ real-life wife actor Amy Madigan – is a prissy, church-going woman determined to have a monument erected to her dead son. Of their two surviving offspring, Tilden is a oddly child-like man obsessed with digging up corn from the previously barren backyard of their ailing Illinois farm, while Bradley is a similarly off-kilter individual, who for reasons undisclosed hacked off his own leg with a chainsaw.

The family’s honey-thick and out-of-time existence is disrupted by the arrival of swaggering, leather-jacketed grandson, Vince, and his girlfriend, Shelly. None of this clan of American grotesques seems particularly pleased to see him; in fact they barely seem to recognise him at all – Shepard’s play is all about the act of forgetting and the awful things families lock in boxes and brush under rugs.

The production is meticulously performed. Harris is simultaneously fragile and fire-eyed, and though sofa-bound for much of the production, he still fills the stage. There’s a malevolent edge to this piece of human wreckage, along with a glimmer of charm – flashes of the man he once was. Gary Shelford’s taciturn Bradley, with his loping gait, is similarly capable of conveying much while saying little. Jeremy Irvine gives a flashy and charismatic, if rather over-large, performance as Vince but it’s Charlotte Hope, making her West End debut as Shelly, who really impresses. She’s an endearing and grounding presence in this weird world, kind and bright; the moment in which Bradley probes her open mouth with his fingers is magnificently disturbing.

Scott Elliot’s production justifies its use of two short 10-minute intervals. Buried Child is very much a mood-piece and each act has a distinct feel. With the exception of the slightly forced opening scene, in which Dodge converses at length with an off-stage Halie, it’s a captivating production, with Elliott highlighting the cracked quality of the writing, with its shades of Shirley Jackson, while giving shape to this odd American fable, full of family secrets, tainted earth and unlegged men.

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Verdict
Atmospheric and meticulously performed revival of Sam Shepard’s strange American fable
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