The Flick review of Annie Baker's Pulitzer Prize winning play at the National Theatre

  • Our critic's rating:
    Wednesday, April 20, 2016
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    In the week where the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to the first musical since 2010, Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner opened at the National's Dorfman Theatre in an almost straight transfer from off-Broadway, reuniting two original cast members with director Sam Gold.

    To call this play a slow burn somewhat undermines the integrity of both Baker's text and Gold's direction. Granted, it cruises along at a glacial pace, but this speed allows the beauty of the play to unfold naturally, leading to multiple revelations for each of the three characters. It's a curious piece and one that manages to capture millennial angst in a simple yet wholly effective manner that gives you the time and head space to consider both the world of the play and the external commentary Baker suggests.

    Set in a small-town picture house in Massachusetts the play follows three employees on day to day business as their relatively normal lives interact. It's distinctly undramatic, and that's the plays greatest achievement – the dialogue drops revelations and bombshells such as attempted suicide and family problems with casual ease, as the $8.25/hour workers find an awkward comfort in the most menial of tasks that somehow covers their greatest fears.

    Gold's direction fully maintains the consistently still pace and manages to draw out a set of wholly honest and engaging performances. The acting is simple and understated, with just the right amount of character embellishment to help differentiate and engage. After the overblown and overly dramatic production of 'Cleansed' running in the same space, it was a delight to enjoy the silences and stillness that provide the core structure of the play, through the fourth wall of the cinema screen offering a voyeuristic gaze into this parochial world.

    Each of the characters have unexplained layers that gradually evolve but never compete for attention. What Baker achieves is that sense of detachment felt in workplaces all over the world, where a casual and passing interest in your colleagues sketches a fine yet superficial picture of human nature. We learn about each of the characters almost in real time as they open up with one another, with only one moment, a phone call in semi-darkness, giving the audience a behind the scenes glance. The effect is wholly realistic yet unsettling, and speaks to a modern and traditional theatrical tradition.

    For as much as the play focuses on human interactions Baker attempts to address this within the context of the changing face of cinema. Unlike 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'Singin' in the Rain' which are set against the technological changes to film in the first half of the twentieth century, Baker focus on the shift from film to digital, as the 35mm projection becomes obsolete. Whilst quite surface level, the metaphor extends beyond the picture house and we're shown a noble yet ineffective attempt at resistance. Film buff Avery represents the millennial obsession with preserving tangible goods, and his rage against the machine comes from a place of desperation rather than being a hipster sympathiser. Films have made him sexually impotent, and as the most complex of the three characters he represents the idea that real life can never measure up to the the excitement of Hollywood, and the mundane melancholy that is the everyday.

    There's excellent naturalistic design from David Zinn, coupled with careful and effective lighting by Jane Cox that captures the setting perfectly, reminding me of many summers spent in run-down picture houses in the Poconos.

    The Flick is a play that's easy to admire for its careful delivery and brave pacing, but I rarely felt arrested or emotionally attached to the characters. Whilst the drama could fit into a sharp 90minute one act, it is allowed space to breath and gestate, expanding easily into the 3 hours 20minutes. A slice of real life is rarely seen so honestly and faithfully presented, and both Baker and Gold create an pointed look at American life that may take some time to unfold, yet is ultimately worth the effort.


    s play seems not only superfluous but curiously dated."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "Full of inventive ideas but never finds its rhythm,."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
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