The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Autumn-Winter 2016
The Red Barn is a thrill-less thriller, a not especially noir film noir, and a psychological study of characters whose psychology is paper-thin.
It is wrapped up in a production design that seems designed to get in its way as much a possible and directed so that it sometimes seems like a parody of itself.
Oh, and it has almost nothing to do with a red barn.
Written by David Hare and based on a story by Georges Simenon, the play begins with two couples returning from a midwinter party, whose car breaks down in a blizzard. Three of them make it to safety but one of the husbands is lost out there in the snow.
Don't get two upset about him – nobody onstage does – because he is a total red herring and the play forgets about him pretty quickly.
The titular barn, mentioned briefly as the setting for a minor offstage event, is also not what the play is about. Nor is the gratuitously (because irrelevant) menacing detective or the folksy and even less relevant small-town newspaper editor.
After meandering about a bit, the play discovers that it is really about the other husband, who has chosen this moment to have a textbook midlife crisis, complete with navel-gazing, the realisation that he has spent his life being safe and cowardly and yearns for some adventure, a bit of alcoholism and a touch of adultery. (All that's missing is the red sports car.)
Until – tiny spoiler alert here – an abruptly violent ending, nothing in the man's psychological or spiritual journey varies from cliche in any way, and so it is really hard for us to care.
His characterisation is not the only single-note stereotype in the play. His wife is a passive-aggressive witch who disapproves of everything and the Other Woman an ice queen femme fatale.
Nobody in the play has any reality or anything for us to attach any emotional connection to. And it is clear that that is the way director Robert Icke wants it, because he has led everyone to cold and distancing performances.
The first few scenes play like a parody of 1940s film noir, full of broad overacting, portentous pauses and meaningful glances, all so artificial that I hoped the sequence would turn out to be a deliberately over-the-top play within the play, like the opening of Stoppard's The Real Thing or David Hare's own A Map Of The World.
But alas no, and while things do settle down after a while, they never reach anything resembling realism.
The actors – Mark Strong (man), Hope Davis (wife), Elizabeth Debicki (other woman) and the rest – are all clearly doing what their director told them to do, so it isn't really their fault that they are all so poor.
Meanwhile, designer Bunny Christie tries hard to hide the play's emptiness by replacing a front curtain with a series of moving panels that open in various rectangular shapes to expose parts of the stage and then close again, in a kind of cinematic iris-in and iris-out effect, or perhaps an evocation of comic book panels.
The device has little to do with the play (and isn't even original, having been used in other productions in recent years) and merely shouts very loudly 'Look how clever I am'.
I might complain that the gimmick draws attention away from the play were there much of a play for it to sabotage. I'll merely note that the device does create the illusion of instant set changes that will leave you with sincere admiration for the hard-working stage crew.
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