‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
So goes the worn-out Tolstoy quote. Will Eno’s play doesn’t interrogate the nucleus of the unhappy family as much as revel in their torment like some Channel Four fly-on-the-wall – a freak show thinly disguised as a documentary, designed to make you feel a bit better about your relationship with your siblings, or with your slightly racist Auntie Pat: ‘Hey, she said some terrible things over that birthday lunch but we aren’t as bad as these guys, right?’
But rather than stay in the fun but well-worn territory of enmeshment and sarcastic barbs, Eno’s writing goes down a more surreal route. Gradually members of the family disappear from the stage, on premises ranging from popping to the deli to seeing if their child has been hurt in a car crash. They are replaced with new versions of themselves, from another family or possibly dimension. Played by the same actors, the alternative daughter, mother, and uncle figures operate a house viewing under the feet of the wheelchair bound putrid patriarch (Greg Hicks). As they pick at the wallpaper and inspect the squeaky stairs, they seem to be saying, ‘Hmmm, you haven’t looked after this, have you? Don’t worry, we will do a better job. We will fix your house. We will fix the American family unit. We won’t fuck it up like you did’.
The twist works, it turns the expectations of a dysfunctional-family-living-room drama upside down with a Twilight Zone-esque creepiness. It’s that nastiness beneath smiles that only works in a certain genre of Americana, what Stephen King has termed the perfect combination of Disneyland and the death penalty. There’s first class performances from all; Hicks artfully handles the Father’s journey from spiky fulcrum, dishing out constant disdain to his wife and children, to a man reduced to milked serpent, his venom powerless against home invaders to whom he’s just a grumpy-old-man’™ (bit like Auntie Pat, vile but for some reason no one cares cos they’re old).
Yes, it’s very clever, very watchable and there is brilliant work from the cast in their dual roles. Yet I so wanted to spend some more time wallowing in the misery of the first 30 or so minutes. The slight farce of the rest left me a bit indifferent. Director Michael Boyd so skilfully draws out the total tedium and cruelty of a relationship between nice-middle-class children and parents that’s built on resentment and flat-out dislike. ‘Isn’t it nice?’ they placate each other, ‘just being together’, scraping razor blades across each other in the crushing mundanity of pointless small talk: ‘You hear that son? Someone you don’t know may or may not open a gift shop.’
Hick’s ‘Father’ is obviously callous, but it’s the interplay between Teresa Banham’s ‘Mother’ and her long-suffering ‘Daughter’ Lindsey Campbell that is a study in spite. All simpering and pearls, Banham continually offers her daughter things that she then never gives: would you like some coffee, tea, lunch, affection? You get the impression that these empty promises have been the soundtrack to the children’s whole lives. They radiate love towards the parental deflectors. They offer titbits of their lives and their fears (that go uncomforted), along with a carefully wrapped gift, stowed away to be opened later. The only one in this family who receives any real warmth is the dog, and it’s run away.
I started with the most famous Anna Karenina quote, but I actually think another is more fitting for this family and their resignation to a wretched existence (excluding ‘screw-you-all’ Hicks) in order to preserve the nuclear model: ‘Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be’.
The Open House is on until 17 February 2018 at the Print Room. Click here for more details.