Review - The Tell-Tale Heart at the National Theatre
If panto isn't your scene this Christmas, Anthony Neilson is offering up the perfect opportunity to swap snowballs and Santa for eyeballs and murder as he brings his riff on Edgar Allan Poe's 150-year-old short horror to the Dorfman. This suspenseful production brings a sack full of tricks to give you the creeps, and while it stays relatively faithful to its source material, it suffers from a lack of focus in its early scenes.
Neilson sets his modernised version of the gothic short story in a loft flat where playwright Celeste (yep, it's another play about a writer), who has just disgraced herself by turning down a major playwriting award, is looking to find some peace as she writes her next play. She befriends her landlady, an innocent girl who conceals an eye condition under a clinical Phantom of the Opera mask.
Celeste becomes more and more selfishly frustrated that she feels as if she has to hide her eye away from the world - it's not her problem if other people are grossed out. You never feel she genuinely believes this, and it's just her own morbid curiosity and fear of not knowing something that drives her to convince her new friend to reveal her eye: a cartoonishly engorged bulge that swells out of her face, grimly constructed by designer Francis O'Connor. In her horror, Tamara Lawrance's writer decides it's too grim to be in this world and must go. This is where Poe's story picks up; 'I made up my mind to take the life of the old man and thus rid myself of the eye forever'.
After a pretty gruesome demise of the eye, the second act sees Lawrance's character despair with guilt at what she has done, which is complemented with some deliciously creepy video projections by Andrzej Goulding, setting tension in a way that never feels otherworldly or too OTT.
While Neilson plays with some elements of Poe's original cleverly - such as the detective who mocks Celeste with both his questioning and Stephen Sondheim renditions - some of the dialogue seems a little lazy. He lays on the landlady's sweetness by making her sound like a Scooby Doo character (has anyone ever genuinely used 'jeepers' or 'jinkies'?), and some of her infantile jokes just don't land with an audience above the age of 14.
The play excels where it uses effects such as Nigel Edwards sometimes subtle but often intense lighting to instil a chill around the Dorfman. There's a piece in the programme about why the eye is so important to horror; seeing one ripped to shreds as its burst with a blade, and having a giant one dangle ominously above the stage had me wincing in my seat.
Lawrance's transformation from woke playwright to quivering mess couldn't be more believable, and she's central to keeping this play grounded in some sense of reality. David Carlyle gives a comic, dark performance as the detective, and is also put to use by Neilson to frame The Tell-Tale Heart as a story within a wider story, which comes across as slightly indulgent overkill.
Maintaining that feeling that these freaky happenings could happen when you retire to your bed makes this show all the more haunting. But for all its horror, it feels as if what could have been a great thriller has been pushed a little too far. If the script was a little tighter in the earlier scenes, and the bigger ideas refined, this festive freak-show would be a cracker.
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