Trafalgar Studios, London (****)
There are some classic lines in Sam Shepard’s brilliant 1978 Pulitzer prize winner, Buried Child. `We can’t not believe in something – we just end up dying if we stop. Just end up dead’. America in the grip of a malaise, America tearing itself apart and here, right in the middle of the 1970s, Shepard’s resonant metaphor speaks directly to post presidential Trump-land USA 2016. American theatre has never been short on family dramas – perhaps because `the family’ has always been the seat, the epitome of the American dream – the quintessential idea of a home of one’s own and `raising a family’. In the 1970s, like the 1930s, the US began a downward economic spiral. Shepard pitches his vision in the mid-west, in its agricultural sector where declining, booze-sodden patriarch, Dodge (Hollywood star, Ed Harris making his London debut and exuding unfussy charisma) coughs and spits and ekes out his dying days reclining on a sofa whilst his wife bellows inanities from the bedroom above or disappears to spend time with the local priest dressed in her best Sunday finery.
Shepard is not afraid to pile layer upon layer of seeming absurdity onto this failing family of father, mother and two wholly dysfunctional sons – Tilden, an exile from New Mexico and the hobbled Bradley, a bit too eager with the hair razor. Into this ménage step two innocents – grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and girl-friend, originally from LA, Shelly.
Somehow, Shepard manages an extraordinary balancing act. Having raised the level of absurdity to a high water mark, gradually his dialogue switches to a poetic philosophical distillation of loss and regret. Buried Child is quintessentially a play about truth, lies and secrets, revelation, inheritance and the replacement of one generation by another. But it’s not just the subject matter and its extraordinary application to today that makes this production so compelling and haunting.
Scott Elliott’s immaculate, impressive New Group production combining American – Harris and his real life wife, Amy Madigan – and an excellent quartet of young British actors – Barnaby Kay, Gary Shelford, Jeremy Irvine and Charlotte Hope on a terrific debut – carries all the hallmarks of ensemble playing at its very best; selfless, intense and wonderfully focussed. If there’s a better example playing in the West End at present, I’d like to see it. Stunning. Buried Child runs at Trafalgar Studios to Feb 18, 2017 This review first published on this website, Dec 5, 2016 Buried Child By Sam Shepard Cast: Halie: Amy Madigan Dodge: Ed Harris Tilden: Barnaby Kay Bradley: Gary Shelford Vince: Jeremy Irvine Shelly: Charlotte Hope Father Dewis: Jack Fortune Understudies: Halie: Pippa Winslow Dodge/Father Drewis: Andrew Lewis Vince, Tilden and Bradley: Tommy Burgess Shelly: Skye Bennett Director: Scott Elliott Set Design: Derek McLane Costume Design: Susan Hilferty Lighting Design: Neil Austin Sound Design: Jeremy S Bloom Wig Design: Dave Bova Associate Director: Richard Fitch London Costume Supervisor: Lydia Crimp Assistant Lighting Designer: Rachel Cleary Presented by Lisa Matlin, Ambassador Theatre Group, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions Limited/Just For Laughs and Moya Productions A New Group Production. First perf of this production of Buried Child at the Trafalgar Studios, London, Nov 14, 2016. Presented by The New Group earlier in New York in 2016. The world premiere of Buried Child was in 1978