Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 29 September, 2004

Dodge and his shambling, fractious Illinois family share a dark secret. We know what that secret is: it’s there in the play’s title – it’s a buried child. The secret is how it got in the ground.  Sam Shepard’s play hasn’t been seen here since its 1980 British première.  Matthew Warchus’s production packs a strong punch, with grim humour, anguish and sometimes downright horror. But it’s not quite the hoped-for knockout.

I have my doubts about Shepard’s plays: I think there may be less to their black absurdity than meets the eye.  In this respect, Buried Child works better than many others, since it’s set in a semi-recognisable real world.  I say “semi-“ because it often feels like Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and sometimes even like Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, if those plays had been rewritten by Eugene O’Neill.

Dodge and his elderly gadabout wife Halie inhabit a large, crumbling house, tended by (and tending) sons Tilden, who’s gone funny in the head, and Bradley, a bully with a prosthetic leg.  When Tilden’s own son Vince arrives, no-one remembers him; his girlfriend Shelly, though, gradually uncovers the dark burden the imploding family share.  The final disintegration is inevitable, but no less draining for all that.

Director Matthew Warchus is often said to be very good at staging “exterior” stuff, but rather less adept at revealing people’s inner workings.  In this respect, his strengths mesh well with Shepard’s play: most of its workings are external, with inward demons only sketched out or hinted at.  Rob Howell’s set, a sparsely planked skeleton of the house, gives physical form to the family’s rickety state.

As Shelly, Lauren Ambrose from TV’s Six Feet Under shows some of the flaws of a screen actor who’s less used to stage work, but she gets the job done.  It’s an honour to see M Emmet Walsh on stage after Blood Simple, Blade Runner and a host of other films. He’s always had the impressive command to make a presiding role like Dodge his own.  Sam Troughton as Vince shows that he’s now acquired a powerful stage presence.

And yet, for all its strong points, the production doesn’t quite blast off, or achieve crossover, or whatever.  Those with a taste for Shepard will like it, those who want to see the venerable Mr Walsh will be delighted, those who are likewise after Ms Ambrose’s “scalp” perhaps bemused.  In the end, though, it’s just another superior unhappy-family drama; it tells us nothing new, just does it superbly.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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