Writers: Sam Shepard
Director: Scott Elliot
Reviewer: Niall Harman
With a title like Buried Child, it should come as no surprise that Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play has its dark moments. It also comes with a fair few laughs and at times borders on farce. This creates a problematic mix, as it that neither Shepard nor director Elliot has been able to decide quite what the play is. At the core is a dark and disturbing storyline involving a devastating family secret which should make for absorbing and uncomfortable viewing, but it feels as if Shepard wanted to tell this story, but was unsure quite how to do it.
The action – and that word maybe inappropriate as this is a play that feels very long and overwrought – takes place in the living room of a tired Illinois townhouse. Act One starts fairly well. Amy Madigan’s Hailie potters around unseen upstairs, while Ed Harris’s Dodge occupies the couch downstairs swathed in a floral blanket. She blathers on endlessly, while her husband adds witty asides and looks at the tiny television in bewilderment. Here, Harris’s natural timing proves to be one of the production’s great gifts, and he quickly charms the audience despite Dodge being quite the curmudgeon. Yet after a promising start, the first act quickly peters out and becomes painfully slow. The only relief comes in the closing minute when a character loudly blasts an old Dolly Parton record.
The arrival of grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) after a six-year absence, and his new girlfriend (Charlotte Hope), in the play’s second act serves as a catalyst for a series of home truths and stunning family revelations. Or at least it should, but the character of Vince is so woefully underwritten and underdeveloped that this doesn’t really happen. Shepard’s decision not to focus on the horrific details of this small-town family’s affairs is an admirable one, as their acceptance of these grim details should make them all the more shocking. But to do so the characters need to be fully fleshed out and well-written, which is not the case.
What raises this above the mediocre is Ed Harris. Anyone familiar with his film and television work will know that Harris’s committed performances add something special to even the most paltry productions, and it is no different here in his West End debut. Barnaby Kay and Charlotte Hope provided solid support, but it really is Harris’ evening.
But even Harris cannot make this near-three-hour saga not feel even longer. The play’s two intervals do not help this, and there are so many moments that when things start to fall into place and the tension is ramped up before quickly fading away. While there is the occasional spark, this is never fanned into a flame. Derek McLane’s set manages to encapsulate small-town America and disillusionment with the American Dream that comes with the territory, but the pointless use of some pillars at either side of the stage will frustrate many by needlessly obscuring their view.
Despite its award-winning pedigree and the numerous revivals it has enjoyed over the past three decades, Buried Child proves to be quite a messy and frustrating play that could have been something great, if only Shepard and Elliot could decide quite what that something was.
Runs until 18 February 2016 | Image: Contributed