A young couple check into a B&B to spend a few days touring Gettysburg – but instead of soaking up history, about a watershed moment in the American Civil War, they find themselves in a last ditch battle to save their relationship.
Annie Baker’s absorbing and quirky John, which has just opened on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage, is a slow burner full of the playwright’s trademark long-drawn-out silences and awkward conversations.
It plays for more than three hours (with two intervals) and, when it’s over, you feel like you’ve survived your own minor skirmish.
Nothing much happens – but it’s thoroughly engrossing.
The anticipation and tension build throughout but never deliver. It’s like watching one of those frustrating six-part TV dramas which suddenly reaches a conclusion by ending in mid-sentence and you wonder why you’ve dedicated weeks watching it.
The reason to stick with John (who, like Godot, never makes an appearance, but influences the entire story) lies in its masterly characterisation. The cast of four are utterly fascinating. It’s impossible to ignore them and their eccentricities.
Permeating Baker’s off-beat drama are ghosts from the past who seem determined to affect the future.
“You know this house is haunted and capable of anything?” says the barking mad, Genevieve, trying to unsettle the already stressed-out Jenny and her boyfriend, Elias.
So it’s a ghost story? A bit Stephen King? Spooky house, eccentric landlady, mysterious husband who we never see – but who I’m convinced is a rotting corpse in the back bedroom – and the crazy, blind best friend. Of course it is.
Well, not quite.
Elias, a nerdy computer programmer and history geek, and Jenny, a neurotic quiz-setter for a famous TV show, have been dating on and off.
The pair of them find it difficult to be truthful and honest but they’ve decided on a temporary truce to indulge in a make-or-break couple of days at Gettysburg to visit the tourist attractions and battle sites.
They’re staying in a B&B run by Mertis who is full of apple pie bonhomie but is, it has to be said, just a little bit odd.
The house is a shrine to kitsch Americana, stuffed with dolls, tat and ephemera. Sitting on a shelf, at the end of a long line of collectables, is a subtly-lit doll in a rocking chair (aha, it’s the bride of Chucky, I thought).
By an amazing coincidence, Jenny had the same doll as a child and it used to totally freak her out. Barbie it ain’t.
And then there’s the bedroom which the ever-smiling Mertis would rather the young couple didn’t sleep in…
This is Annie Baker playing mind games, aided and abetted by mischievous director James Macdonald.
Jenny and Elias try to work through their problems – not helped by Jenny’s mobile phone always going off (don’t you hate that in a theatre?) – while Mertis offers an occasional shoulder to cry on and an encyclopaedic memory for trivia.
In the second act the wonderfully eccentric Genevieve turns up to entertain the audience with her lunatic obsessions and fixations about her ex-husband whose spirit won’t leave her alone.
The writing never fails to hold your interest and Baker’s occasional oddball moments offer hilarity when Jenny is in danger of too much introspection.
Macdonald also enjoys utilising the playwright’s own sense of humour. The couple take their bags up to their bedroom and the audience is left straining to hear the muffled conversation going on off and above the stage.
It causes more than a few sniggers from theatre-goers who are wondering if the sound has failed.
Marylouise Burke gives Mertis a childish, playful voice and light tone, always eager to please and appear welcoming, but was it only me who found her rather intrusive?
She’s always on hand, always watching – just like her creepy dolls – and what has she done with her sick husband George?
June Watson is a delight as the crackpot Genevieve while Tom Mothersdale and Anneika Rose are engaging as Elias and Jenny but I can’t say they’re a likeable couple.
Congratulations to Chloe Lamford for coming up with such a fascinating and busy set. So much stuff.
John runs in the Dorfman Theatre of the NT until March 3.
Slow-burning, quirky, but utterly engaging. Annie Baker’s John makes his presence felt in an off-beat relationship drama played out on the fields of Gettysburg.