The Open House

As if we don’t have any worthy contemporary British playwrights to showcase, following German writer Daniel Kehlman’s unremarkable Christmas Eve, the Ustinov Studio features another international playwright – this time award-winning New Yorker, Will Eno, whose The Open House won the Obie award for playwriting and the Lucille Lortel award for Outstanding Play 2014. If that wasn’t enough, when you hear that Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the RSC, is heading up this production, your expectations suddenly rocket.
Yet I came remarkably close to wanting to walk out of The Open House within the first half an hour. Droll without being witty, with a highly detailed dialogue that errs on the tedious rather than the engaging, however brilliantly observed it might be. There are moments of gentle amusement but never laugh-out-loud humour, and I wasn’t quite sure if it was intended to be sitcom funny or we Brits simply missed the joke. Yet it is a well conceived illustration of the family dynamic of grown up children returning to the fold for their parent’s wedding anniversary. Not a romantic or celebratory affair when Father (Greg Hicks) can’t recall how many years it’s been. To add to the strained mood, the dog has done a runner.
You’d expect Boyd to get the best out of quality actors and so he has, the ensemble portraying Mother (Teresa Banham), Father, Daughter (Lindsey Campbell), Son (Ralph Davis) and the Uncle (Crispin Letts) extremely well, while the play markedly improves when the five-part cast morph into secondary roles on Father intending to put the house on the market without having told anyone, least of all Mother. At 90 minutes with no interval, it’s a slow burner that eventually rewards one with a feast of diverse acting; an uphill battle when it isn’t the dazzling script you might have expected from all the hype.
RSC stalwart Hicks is the stand-out of the night and made me glad that I had stayed; putting in an impressive performance as the wheelchair-bound Father who has suffered a stroke and enjoys nothing more than winding up his son, daughter, wife and brother with a constant stream of sarcasm, insults and ambiguous observations that intend to get under their skin. He then startles us by leaving the wheelchair behind and putting in an energetic turn as the lawyer brother of the prospective buyer (Teresa Banham).
Campbell is also impressive as first the daughter and later the pushy estate agent who attempts to inject some colour into the bland living room in which the entire drama (if you could call it that) unfolds. I’m not sure I gave a straw what happened to any of the characters by the end and that shows something lacking in either the writing or production. Despite my disappointment The Open House will transfer to London early next year, when the door will be open and waiting for you to make your own mind up.

The Open House runs at the Ustinov Studio until 23 December. It is co-produced by Print Room at the Coronet and will transfer to the London venue in the new year, playing 18 January to 17 February. For more information and tickets please visit the Ustinov website