Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 14 March, 2001

Towards the end of Joe Orton's Loot, a character remarks, "What has just taken place is perfectly scandalous and had better go no farther than these three walls," with a nod and a smirk to the theatrical convention that the audience are in effect looking through an invisible "fourth wall". In Colin Teevan's new play at the Cottesloe, a middle-class Dublin family face the crisis on Christmas Eve that the fourth wall of their own living room has just vanished. As the evening wears on, the other three follow one by one. The family name, naturally, is Walls.

The symbolism of The Walls is fairly obvious: as the physical walls disappear, the psychological and emotional ones erected by each of the family come into sharper view and themselves threaten to crumble. In particular, mother Stella a terrifically edgy, switchback performance from Clare Higgins finds it ever more difficult to keep driving the polite social fiction of the evening. Like the miraculously remaining roof of the house, it becomes clear that each of the family is keeping a lid on their inner demons without any real support beneath but solely through "Faith, hope and... spite." Only younger son John Gary Lydon, as ever, suggesting a semi-dormant but far from extinct volcano is emotionally honest throughout, leaving the restored house at the end.

Teevan's play nods towards his compatriots Beckett and Joyce ("Coincidences will be general over Ireland," remarks someone in an explicit homage to the latter's novella The Dead), in tone it is old-school Theatre of the Absurd, often calling to mind Ionesco or A.R. Gurney. The vanishing walls are, as it were, the family "rhinoceros": a progressive catastrophe which it is taboo to speak of directly. Even The Man who comes to repair the place (the amiable Toby Jones) sits down and engages in small talk rather than actually doing anything about it.

Director Mick Gordon has assembled a diverse yet impressive cast (also including Karl Johnson and Tony Rohr), and he orchestrates events with his customary discreet scrupulousness. Towards the end of its 100-minute playing time, though, Teevan's script begins to flag: having conveyed all his characters to the emotional ground zero and exploded a kind of memory bomb which irradiates them all, he has nowhere much to go but backwards. (Dick Bird's set design gets the last laugh, which it would be unfair to give away.) It's an intriguing piece, more complex and successful than it may at first appear but still not a completely solid structure.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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