The Open House review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘deliberately slippery’
Explorations of the American family have long been used by US playwrights as a way of taking the temperature of the country. Will Eno’s 2014 play The Open House, receiving its UK premiere, adds to this tradition, depicting a fractious, ruptured family unit where reality has disintegrated into absurdity.
Two grown-up children come home to mark the wedding anniversary of their stiflingly repressed mother (Teresa Banham) and cruelly cantankerous father (Greg Hicks) who is recovering from a stroke. The ailing patriarch relentlessly spits out barbed remarks in his ruthless monotone attack on his relatives.
Director Michael Boyd’s production emphasises this sense of stagnation by placing the characters in static, angular formations. Old ground is stomped over and over until, quite suddenly, this routine intergenerational strife is replaced by the occupation of the home by an even more bizarre set of characters.
A strong casts help solidify the play’s deliberately slippery plot structure. Lindsey Campbell skilfully transforms from the cramped-up daughter smarting under her father’s vitriol to a millennial estate agent, haphazardly bombarding her way through the living room.
Banham’s performance is similarly adept, her tightly clipped delivery and artificial perkiness forever hinting at all manner of internal angst. This pool of emotion contrasts with Hicks’ studiously deadpan delivery, weighty silences and energy-sapping passive aggression.
Tom Piper’s set design has the family suffocating in 1950 shades of beige suburbia. The attention to detail is superb, with wooden bowls of potpourri, an over-filled coat rail and an entire hidden cupboard of childhood memorabilia unexpectedly revealed.
Much of the play’s humour feels decidedly American and for a British audience it may well be easier to appreciate the work intellectually than to love it unreservedly.