Sometimes you wished walls could talk. You move into a new home, one that may have endured the highs and lows of generations of families, and you have to wonder about its former residents.
As you move in, full of dreams and plans, they are moving out, their dreams crushed and the once grandiose plans unfulfilled and forgotten.
Will Eno’s bittersweet comedy, The Open House, presents us with a house drained of all colour and life by the family that has raised two children in it.
We know it once vibrated with laughter and colour but now it is beyond caring – very much like the remnants of the people who reside within its bland, beige, rather neglected interior.
The Open House comes to The Print Room, Notting Hill, itself no stranger to colourful shabby chic, from a successful premiere at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio and it is an engrossing character study of family life, post-The American Dream.
Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn and Torben Betts, have, for years, presented audiences with dark comedies that go beyond the net curtains and neatly mowed front lawns to expose the raw underbelly of suburban life.
And Eno’s disfunctional family is just as revelatory, offering up nameless archetypes that represent the classic family construct – mum, dad, two kids and a caring uncle…oh and a dog.
Here, superficially, is the breakdown of a typical family unit, their hopes for the future now exhausted and replaced with fear, manifesting as animosity and dread.
It is the wedding anniversary of Greg Hicks’ embittered, scared, bullying wheelchair-bound Father and his defeated wife, Mother.
They live in a sparsely furnished, neglected and unloved house with a dog and Father’s widowed brother.
The couple’s two kids, who have both left home – and who can blame them – have returned for the ‘celebration’ but it is anything but.
No-one can say anything without Father’s cynical and cruel retorts. He spews out an endless torrent of bile and an apparent hatred for everyone is revealed with every nasty, hurtful line of sharply observed dialogue.
“Why are we like this?” Lindsey Campbell’s dejected Daughter asks, while Son (impressive RADA graduate Ralph Davis) sits sullenly on the sofa, unable to escape his father’s withering comments and glares.
The Open House opens with the dog, who was playing out in the yard, going missing. After a few perfunctory comments no-one gives it a second thought. I felt rather sorry for the unloved mutt.
Conversation throughout the play is awkward, halting and governed by the mood of the glowering Father.
Director Michael Boyd puts him, and his wheelchair, on one side of the living room set and the gulf between him and Mother, is obvious, physically and spiritually.
She sits on the other side, the two children on the couch in the middle – caught in the crossfire – and Uncle lurking behind, unwilling or unable to join in the poisoned family repartee.
Despite his appalling behaviour I felt nothing but sympathy for Father who is clearly terrified of his own mortality. Heart attacks and a stroke are mentioned. He’s waiting to be finished off and he finds it impossible to elicit any sympathy from his family.
He doesn’t help himself by alienating everyone around him. His wife, who he informs us, was a second choice after an ‘angel’ of a woman deserted him, hasn’t got the strength to get up out of her chair – not even when her daughter drops a bombshell.
She smiles a lot but there’s an emptiness there. Mother is glued to the chair and appears physically unable to give her kids – or her foul-mouthed husband – any expression of love, caring or kindness.
Instead of a hug, she retreats into a crossword puzzle. The children’s anniversary present is tossed aside with barely a look.
Father is eventually left-footed with the arrival of strangers and the ‘master’ of the house finds he is unable to halt the march of time.
Hicks is terrific as the bitter and twisted Father who fires off insults with every breath. “I can admit when I made a mistake – exhibits A, B and C,” he says jabbing a finger at his wife and kids.
His craggy face is set in stone, hardly registering any change, but it’s there. Contempt, disgust, bewilderment and anxiety.
Teresa Banham’s Mother is hard to read. She smiles incessantly but she’s clearly not happy at the way their marriage has turned out.
The anniversary turns into a watershed moment for the family with the house quietly playing its part.
The Open House is 80 minutes of regrets and recriminations superbly captured with finely nuanced performances from this splendid cast of five.
Running at The Print Room at the Coronet until February 17.
The humour is dark and stormy in Will Eno’s sharply observed dissection of family life which features a blistering turn by Greg Hicks.