Anna – National Theatre, London

Writer: Ella Hickson

Director: Natalie Abrahami

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Hollywood versions of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War would suggest that it was a slum city, a crumbling ghetto ruled by jackboot. In Anna, a creation of writer Ella Hickson and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, we see a very different version of the city.

Set in a 1960s glass-fronted apartment, Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume design portrays a level of opulence that befits Hans Weber’s (Paul Bazely) recent promotion at work. But this is not the first thing we notice – for every member of the audience wears headphones, the sounds of the play injected into our ears rather than travelling from the stage. It soon becomes clear that we are hearing what Hans’s wife Anna (Phoebe Fox) is hearing.

This gives Hickson’s thriller a creeping sense of paranoia. As Hans and Anna give a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion, the encroaching dread that all is not well is accompanied by Anna’s quicker breathing. Conversations between partygoers that seem quiet because they are taking place on another part of the stage stop as Anna approaches. And if anybody whispers in Anna’s ear, they blast into ours while everyone on stage remains oblivious.

The result is electrifying. Fox is superb as she swings from nervousness to paranoia, fuelled by seeing Hans’s new boss, Christian Neumann (a steely Max Bennett) and his similarity to a childhood friend triggering flashbacks to the day her mother was killed by Russian troops.

The device keeping audio with Anna at all times produces some thrilling sequences that would not otherwise be possible. The most notable of these is when Fox and Bazely have a conversation in their bedroom, closed off from the party by a door: the effect of eavesdropping on them while our eyes remain stuck on the silent partygoers is as unsettling as it is nail-biting.

Elsewhere, many of the other cast are given characters that are little more than ciphers, although Diana Quick impresses as the older neighbour whose husband has “disappeared” and is now faced with suspicion.

But all are in service to a thrilling hour of Cold War drama that is tautly told. So taut, in fact, that the denouement comes far too quickly. One yearns to spend longer in this world, for the dread (and occasional jump scare) to grace the Dorfman stage for more than merely sixty minutes. For Annais a rare thing of beauty: a play one hates to stop watching and hearing.

Runs until June 15, 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

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Uniquely paranoid thriller

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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