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The Tell-Tale Heart review at National Theatre, London – ‘schlocky horror comedy’

Imogen Doel and Tamara Lawrance in The Tell-Tale Heart at National Theatre's Dorfman, London Imogen Doel and Tamara Lawrance in The Tell-Tale Heart at National Theatre's Dorfman, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The National Theatre has bravely chosen to give one of its festive December slots to Anthony Neilson for a stage adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic gothic short story.

It’s a very loose adaptation (I don’t remember the original containing many jokes about unflushable turds), created in Neilson’s usual fashion, working particularly closely with the cast and honing the script right up to the last minute. This results in a kind of daft grisly farce with lashings of Grand Guignol splatter. If you’re at all squeamish about eyeballs this probably isn’t the show for you.

The plot centres on a playwright – played by Tamara Lawrance, excellent as ever – who has a commission at the National Theatre, a deadline pending, and a bad case of writer’s block magnified by the fact she recently rejected a high-profile playwriting prize. In order to focus on finishing her first draft she holes up in a Brighton attic room where she develops an increasingly warm relationship with her lonely landlady, played by Imogen Doel.

In Poe’s story the only reason given for the unnamed narrator’s murderous act is a fear of the landlord’s “vulture eye”; Neilson seizes on this, the image of the eye and the idea of being seen. Doel’s character has an eye condition that necessitates the wearing of a mask. The playwright assures the landlady that whatever’s under there won’t shock her, but it takes a while to win Doel’s trust. Inevitably when the eye is finally revealed to the playwright – and the audience – she fails to keep her promise. She can see nothing else, think of nothing else, and it’s not long before events take a gruesome turn.

There are layers of artifice at work here. Lawrance’s character is sometimes called Celeste, sometimes Camille, and there are two versions of David Carlyle’s police detective – one a hard-nosed Taggart type, one an exceptionally camp theatre nut. Could all this be taking place in the writer’s head?

Designer Francis O’Connor has created a suitably skewed seaside artist’s studio complete with three-bar fire, dumb waiter and a vast skylight that reflects the room below. The spontaneous nature of the creative process allows for the inclusion of jokes about everything from Marianne Elliot’s Company, to the Netflix version of The Haunting of Hill House (a meta-reference, as Neilson adapted the book for Liverpool Playhouse a few years ago).

Lawrance, Carlyle and Doel are all clearly comfortable with Neilson’s methods and nail the play’s mixture of menace and silliness; Doel’s delivery in particular is a delight. But the combination of theatre industry in-jokes and schlocky horror comedy never completely coalesces and the piece doesn’t ever attain the feverish intensity of Poe’s magnificent sliver of a story.

Neilson is an alchemist, but here the experiment doesn’t come off. It delivers a good number of jolts, and is certainly never dull, but it feels slightly undercooked.

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Enjoyably schlocky adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's macabre short story