When Deborah Warner takes over as artistic director of Bath’s Ustinov Studio in the autumn, she will inherit an enviable reputation for staging UK premieres of challenging American plays. The latest transatlantic transfer, Will Eno’s tragicomic The Realistic Joneses, scooped three major Broadway awards in 2014 and is a telling study of the obstacles put in the way of communicating with the people we love, and the dismay caused by unexpected illness.
Bob (Corey Johnson) and Jennifer Jones (Sharon Small) are already finding it increasingly difficult to talk to each other when a younger family also called Jones – John (Jack Laskey) and Pony (Clare Foster) – move in next door. Their attempt to bond is helped and hindered by both men suffering from a degenerative disease that affects their speech and is, as yet, without a cure.
Eno develops the largely melancholy narrative in a series of short scenes, divided by slightly annoying blackouts, and played straight through. An awkward meeting in a supermarket between John and Jennifer, and a night spent stargazing by the two men, are particularly revealing, as are the subtle shifts in relationships between the four, leaving behind the realistic expectations of the title.
This is a wordy as well as an unsettling play, with strong hints of theatre of the absurd. Director Simon Evans draws out four nuanced performances from his players, teasing out just the right mix of anxiety and dark humour and framed by Peter McKintosh’s symbolic mirrored panels and cardboard-box set.