A horror show that appeals to the intellect but not the gut: The Tell-Tale Heart reviewed

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

5 January 2019

9:00 AM

The Tell-Tale Heart is based on a teeny-weeny short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The full text appears in the programme notes. Here’s the gist. A madman kills his landlord and is haunted by a ghostly heartbeat that prompts him to confess his crime.

Anthony Neilson’s adaptation turns both characters into women and gives away the ending in the opening scene. An English writer lodging with a young Irish landlady is accused of murdering her by a detective. At a stroke, all uncertainty is effaced. The only remaining mystery is why Neilson can’t understand his chosen genre. He tries to interest us in the causes of the murder, and we watch the developing relationship between landlady and lodger. The English writer is a haughty prig whom Tamara Lawrance struggles to invest with warmth or vitality. (Not her fault, the characterisation is feeble.) The Irish landlady is a needy and eccentric chatterbox who aches to befriend her new tenant. The amazing Imogen Doel plays her with so much charm and naturalism that she appears not to be acting at all. Just behaving. The characters, both faintly bisexual, consider a fling but the landlady is overly shy and the writer seems stupefied with ennui and superiority. So there are no gymnastics in the bedroom and therefore no sexual motive for the killing. What about money? Nope. And it hardly helps that the murderer, being female, is far less likely to commit a violent crime than in Poe’s original.

So why does it happen? The play struggles to find answers. Clunky recorded speeches give us glimpses of the writer’s troubled psyche. But this hardly explains why she chooses to jeopardise her blossoming career by bumping off an innocent stranger. A weird additional motive is provided by the landlady’s deformed eye socket, which the writer finds repulsive. But that’s a reason to move house, not to stick a blade into her skull and chop her to bits in the bathroom.

The production moves uncertainly between light entertainment and full-on horror. There are flashing lights, sudden blackouts, noisy whumps and crumps from the soundtrack intended to trigger panic in the auditorium. At the same time there are arty in-jokes. We’re told that the English writer has been commissioned to produce a script for the National Theatre and the characters make ironic remarks about the complexities of a play being performed at the National that features a playwright writing a play for the National. Quite funny, but slightly tiresome. It’s hard to see how this dramatic mutant will win an audience. Fans of Poe will find no flavour of his work here. Admirers of girl-on-girl romance will be disappointed. Those with a taste for slasher movies may enjoy the dismemberment scenes but the effect of stage ketchup is never as realistic as its cinematic counterpart. After the interval the audience thinned out, and the remainers were treated to a clever-clogs reversal of the narrative, which suggested that the show was a figment of the playwright’s imagination. This smart-alec codicil epitomised the entire problem. This is a horror show that appeals to the intellect but not the gut.

Terry Johnson’s production of Uncle Vanya is a model of simplicity and truth. The design is versatile, unshowy, fairly chic and yet noticeably rustic. The cast know their lines. Chekhov does the rest. Alan Cox’s Vanya has lots of warmth and intelligence, and a strain of self-pity that charms and engages. His love for Yeliena can never become a physical reality because he views it as a creative distraction, like a train set in the attic that he keeps adding to but can never complete.

All this is captured well but there’s a layer of poetry and melancholy that Cox can’t reach. And he seems too decent and level-headed to blast two bullets at his brother-in-law in a flash of temper. Robin Soans is a treat as the snuffling, priggish old don who decides on a whim to render his entire family homeless, and then changes his mind. Yeliena, a tricky role, is a petulant airhead whose sole purpose in life is to do nothing and to have fun doing it. And yet she fails. The porcelain-skinned Abbey Lee is hard to fathom, easy to dislike but even easier to adore. A very good Yeliena.

With a bit of extra magnetism and sexiness, Alex Newman’s Dr Astrov would be even more appealing to the doomed Sonia (Alice Bailey Johnson). Patching up a quarrel with Yeliena, Sonia laments; ‘I’m unattractive.’ ‘You have nice hair!’ says her rival. What a put-down. Sonia, no fool, observes bitterly that ugly girls are always praised for their hair. This exquisite moment would be more poignant if Bailey Johnson were a balding, pock-marked lard bucket with dandruff and a limp. Instead she’s a slender doe-eyed pin-up. She isn’t Sonia. But she’s still outstanding.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments