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Will Eno’s The Open House

27 January 2018 | Jasmine Lee Kennedy

In collaboration with Bath’s Ustinov Studio, Print Room at the Coronet have staged their third production by Will Eno, The Open House. The inventive family drama, which was first performed in New York in 2014, is a humorous and critical exploration of the typical American family, following his acclaimed play, The Realistic Joneses. In both plays, the award-winning playwright creates a superbly awkward, funny and relatable narrative, giving an ‘inside look’ at the goings on of people’s family lives and their apparent inherent solitude.

The Open House focuses on a dysfunctional version of the American nuclear family: an awkward mother who is subtly dismissive in a way only a mother can be, an abhorrently rude father, their two uncomfortable 20-something children and a verbally abused uncle. There is also apparently a dog - although we hear its sporadic barks, it is nowhere to be seen. The characters are all referred to by their generic status in the family: Mother, Son, Uncle, perhaps as a spotlight on their generality as a ‘typical’ family.


Image credit: Print Room at the Coronet

The play takes place in the family’s living room which echoes that of an archetypical lower-middle class’s modern suburban home. It is painted a pallid off-white colour and is bare except for a few little tables around the walls, a chair and a small sofa plonked right in the middle. The lack of family pictures and decorations in the room shows you the lack of sentimentality within the family and what appears to be their incumbent relationships, and the clinical cleanliness perhaps shows the boredom of a neurotic and ignored wife.

The father, played by Greg Hicks, throws his verbal attacks from a wheelchair settled on the left side of the sofa, which he slumps in due to a recent stroke, as we learn. Despite his sickness, it appears that the father saves all his energy for his lightening quick disparaging remarks, something which the family seem to expect from him, yet shocks them nonetheless. The mother sits upright on a chair on the right of the room with an unyielding smile and the ‘kids’ sit between them in the line of fire while the uncle lingers in the background. Everyone is on edge, apart from the father who is the one pushing them further towards it, and the uncle, played by Crispin Letts, who is a somewhat oblivious buffer to the drama.
 
From the very beginning the play is amusingly unsettling; the cast perfectly imitate a tension which many of us are accustomed to - the tension of an uncomfortable, obligatory family gathering. This is built up by the Arthur Miller-esque pauses paired with the children’s evidently uncomfortable body language which creates a palpable awkwardness. In this case, the children, portrayed by Ralph Davis and Lindsey Campbell, are visiting on the premise that it is their parents’ wedding anniversary, although they quickly regret coming. The father cares little about his anniversary or even his children – his newspaper is far more important.


Image credit: Print Room at the Coronet

As the play goes on, you begin to wonder why the family stick by him – is it because they’re his kin or feel like his illness is an excuse? A twist in the plot sees the actors in different guise as new characters, which flips the control of dominance. The father, who previously asserted his authority over the family by being a poisonous patriarch, is ignored and lightly bullied by the new characters, and you begin to see him for what he really is; a sick, suffering man, both physically and emotionally.
 
Despite this, The Open House is highly amusing - the father’s cutting remarks, the mother’s stoic smile and the children’s skittish behaviour proves for a witty and dry-humoured although somewhat gloomy show.
 
The Open House opened in November 2017 at Theatre Royal, Bath. It has now moved to Print Room at the Coronet in London and will be showing until until 17 February 2018.  
 

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