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A Lie of the Mind review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘detailed performances’

Gethin Anthony and Michael Fox in A Lie of the Mind at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Lidia Crisifulli Gethin Anthony and Michael Fox in A Lie of the Mind at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Lidia Crisifulli

Sam Shepard plays gnaw away at you. They tease you with cryptic clues, disintegrating storylines and restless, febrile characters.

His 1985 play A Lie of the Mind features the same symbolism-heavy blend of redneck grit and warped American dreams as Fool For Love and Buried Child. This time, its themes – dysfunctional relationships, inescapable destinies, mortal love – land in frost-bitten rural Montana.

Two families are joined by an abusive marriage. Jake has beaten Beth to a pulp and retreated to his childhood bedroom, plagued by guilt and grief. Brain-damaged and bewildered, Beth has been swallowed up by her clan too, cooped up with her bitter parents and her gun-toting brother in their snowy ranch. Shepard follows these converging narratives, tracing every character’s inner geography in forceful, elliptical brushstrokes.

James Hillier’s dusky, smoke-filled staging bears striking resemblance to John Tiffany’s recent production of The Glass Menagerie, with the action isolated on small, square platforms against a vast blackness, and a neon moon hovering balefully behind the stage.

But despite a set of detailed performances – particularly from John Stahl as Beth’s flinty father and Laura Rogers’ as Jake’s mousy sister Sally – and a contemplative live score from James Marples, it never evokes the requisite haunted atmosphere nor mines the murky depths of Shepard’s dialogue. It’s just too crowded, too cluttered, too clunky, and the play loses much of its unsettling power as a result.

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Sam Shepard revival lacking elegance and atmosphere despite some detailed performances