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The Flick review at the Dorfman, National Theatre – ‘an understated epic’

Louisa Krause and Jaygann Ayeh in The Flick at the National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet Louisa Krause and Jaygann Ayeh in The Flick at the National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet

The silver screen reflects empty seats in Annie Baker’s rightfully vaunted play; seats emptied of their audience and scattered with the disenchanted employees of faded Massachusetts fleapit, The Flick. Baker’s play picked up the Pulitzer prize in New York, but also necessitated a letter of explanation to fractious audiences from Tim Sanford, artistic director of originating theatre Playwrights Horizons. It’s hard to see what they were complaining about, as The Flick is both a play and a production of simple, human truths captured in a complex interplay of nuances.

As Baker’s play quietly affirms, film is the translation of life into a strobing of light and shadow. Still images alternate with blank frames so quickly that something beyond simple verisimilitude is created. The Flick performs the same action – the minutiae of the three characters’ lives is glimpsed in the gaps between tedious broom-work and the mopping of spilled colas.

Avery, a greenhorn popcorn-shuffler, is inducted into the banal routines and petty cons of the minimum wage cinema employee by Sam, who’s drifting towards 40 on a sea of half-forgotten dreams and half-realised tragedies. Rose is almost as young as Avery and almost as damaged too. As in all the best of Baker’s work, these three lost souls pass their days stepping awkwardly in and around one other’s neuroses.

The cinema is a world of escapism, but this particular room is more like a refuge. There’s no escape here from the past, from skin colour, from sex and gender, or from stunted lives. Cinematic cliche becomes the subtle stand-in for the world’s expectations more generally, expectations of happy marriages, sexual fluency and the sincerity of friendship. Baker is pixel-clear that cinema is only one way we imagine perfect worlds, only one place in which we seek out meaning in our lives and actions.

Sam Gold’s production takes its time. Though the pace initially seems to flatten Baker’s text, eventually its rhythms begin to speak intelligibly, and by Act II it’s as mesmerising as it is hilarious.

It all takes place in a bank of cinema seats from designer David Zinn that are so real you can almost smell the discarded burger wrappers, and which later transforms from a grimy nostalgic innocence to a vision of corporate conformity under Jane Cox’s smartly understated lighting.

Louise Krause’s Rose is the stand-out performance. She has the least to say but the most to describe, and she emotes considerable, gnawing depths. Matthew Mahew feels a tad affected as the older Sam, but a late encounter with Jaygann Ayeh’s pensive Avery sparks a tentative, compromised optimism that lights up the play’s final moments.

The Flick is a play which confirms Baker as both a superlative poet of disappointment, and of tenacity. It insists that, even when hope is in short supply, all you need is a dream of it: all you need is a flicker.

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Verdict
Understated epic of dreams, disappointment and tenacity by America’s greatest living dramatist
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