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The Tell-Tale Heart, National Theatre review - bloody good fun as well as bloody | reviews, news & interviews

The Tell-Tale Heart, National Theatre review - bloody good fun as well as bloody

The Tell-Tale Heart, National Theatre review - bloody good fun as well as bloody

Anthony Neilson's latest is a Poe-faced delight

Eye on the prize: Imogen Doel and Tamara Lawrance in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'Manuel Harlan

The Tell-Tale Heart may be the title of an 1843 short story by Edgar Allen Poe, but rest assured that Anthony Neilson's adaptation of it for the National contains this theatre maverick's signature throughout. To be sure, the play charts a Poe-esque hallucinatory fall from sanity of an award-winning playwright called Celeste (or is it Camille, given the dualities in which the play revels). But the gathering grand guignol comes accompanied by multiple riffs on everything from the current hit revival of Company to the National itself, not to mention a first-act focus on excrement reminiscent of Neilson's coprophiliac The Censor from years ago

The opening is a doozy: our lauded scribe is at an awards ceremony podium soaking up praise for her breakout play when she against expectation declines the prize, an act that leads to her being stalked by the Daily Mail and vilified by, of all people, Judi Dench (imagine!). We next find the hard-scribbling Celeste (Tamara Lawrance, wonderful) in the high-ceilinged room in Brighton that she is letting from a rather peculiar landlady, Nora (Imogen Doel), who enjoys having a writer for a lodger though possibly not as much as she loves "porno" (her word), especially when the X rating comes accompanied by pizza. While Celeste bangs away on a typewriter revealed after the interval to have a life of its own, Nora parses the word "assume" and expounds on her "cursed family". Celeste, one sense, has a backstory of her own, which is notably glossed over by comparison with Nora's. David Carlyle and Tamara Lawrance in The Tell-Tale HeartA friendship of sorts develops between this odd couple that looks as it it might bloom yet further into a relationship, the third party in the equation being Nora's deformed eye that gets revealed from behind a mask with a flair that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom might envy. Cue cross-cutting in time between events as they unfold between the women and the arrival of a gay male detective (David Carlyle, pictured above with Lawrance), who comes bearing stories, he tells Celeste entirely matter-of-factly, "that will strengthen your pubes". 

We get a gross-out moment or two, a bit of song, and quite a lot of in-jokes and meta-theatrical japery, starting with the fact that Celeste's last play was entitled – note the Poe reference  Pendulum. Imagery is explained (the typewriter is said to represent the beating of a heart), crushes are laid bare (the copper has a thing for Tom Hiddleston), and accusations pile up: ""You certainly don't deserve the love of a giant eye," Nora barks at Celeste, which is certainly a unique remonstration for one friend to make against another.  

The good-natured grotesquerie is handled with ease by a pitch-perfect cast, all of whom play the intended overripeness of the writing with po-faced (you'll forgive the adjective) precision: I shan't soon forget the conviction with which Carlyle employs a second-act simile designed to make your maiden aunt blanch. The fast-rising Lawrance would seem to be on a career trajectory rivaling that of her character, though one trusts that the actress's embrace of awards might be a tad less conflicted. And the determinedly chirpy Doel displays a sort of cock-eyed gallantry against the odds, not least when she appears sporting a beret for no other reason than that it "makes me feel like an artist".

Francis O'Connor's beguiling set includes a dumbwaiter, loose floorboards (useful for the more savage reaches of the plot) and a capacious skylight that allows Andrzej Goulding's video design to work a mood-shifting magic all its own. If you're looking for a touch of the perverse with which to pepper your holiday season, The Tell-Tale Heart has arrived just in time to be a Christmas treat of a distinctly non-trad sort.

The fast-rising Tamara Lawrance would seem to be on a career trajectory rivaling that of her character


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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This must be the worst written and clumsily performed play of the year Should come with a health warning

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