Issue 139: 2018 02 01: John (by Anne Baker)

1 February 2108

John (a play by Anne Baker)

The National Theatre

 reviewed by Adam McCormack

Stars: ****

Jenny and Elias have been going through a difficult patch in their relationship.  In an effort to patch things up, they take a trip to the battlefield sites of Gettysburg in the week after Thanksgiving.  Elias has had a long fascination with the American Civil War and, as the wronged party (Jenny had been seeing someone else), the trip appears to be a gesture of reconciliation from Jenny.  They have booked into a bed and breakfast run by Mertis (aka Kitty).  There appear to be no other guests in a house which was a hospital in the Civil War, and Kitty (who’s sick husband we never see) spends much of her time with a blind widowed friend Genevieve.  On the face of it this all sounds unremarkable, but as Kitty and Genevieve, together with the house, start to tease out the details of Jenny and Elias’s personalities and relationship, the tale takes a supernatural turn.  Jenny’s husband was called John and, interestingly, Jenny knows someone called John.

John is a play that is not easy to categorise.  It could easily take a dark chilling turn but for the most part is thoughtful, with elements of charm, whimsy and gentle humour.  The characters are beautifully observed and, while the action can be ponderous (don’t be put off by a running time of 3 hours 20 minutes), the play will leave you with much to debate.  We understand why Jenny (Anneika Rose) might be struggling with Elias (Tom Mothersdale), who was traumatised by an incident with a family friend at a young age, is scared of birds and can’t help thinking of people as insects.  Jenny, who loves to be told ghost stories, is not without her own neurosis, ascribing human qualities to her childhood dolls – one of which is among the hundreds that line the walls of Kitty’s house.  Kitty (Marylouise Burke) is harder to assess, her relationship with Genevieve has a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace about it, but she (or the house) seems to be strangely prescient and able to read the thoughts of Jenny and Elias.  The hardest character to fathom is Genevieve (June Watson), who interrupts the start of the second interval to describe her descent into madness.

Some will argue that this play could be delivered as effectively in a much shorter time, and they may have a point (although the audience reaction suggested no signs of fatigue).  However there are many threads to this story and we need time to process their relevance.  I have not, for instance mentioned the rooms named after participants in the Civil War which seem to have a character all of their own.  This is a complex story that merits the effort needed to decipher it, and will be appreciated by those who love a ghost story.  Maybe Jenny should see it herself.

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