The Open House, Bath Theatre Royal, Ustinov Studio

THE festive season is all around us, with pantomimes, Christmas lights and carols coming from every speaker – but the mood is more bleak midwinter than merry Christmas at the Ustinov studio where American playwright Will Eno’s award-winning play follows Daniel Kehlmann’s disturbing Christmas Eve.

Eno describes the play as a comedy and it certainly has plenty of laughs, but it also sends shivers down your spine with its unpeeling of the onion skin layers of family life.

Father (Greg Hicks, his face etched in lines of disappointment and grim intelligence) and Mother (Teresa Banham, all blonde sweetness, trying to keep everyone happy) are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Son (Ralph Davis) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) have come home for the big day. Uncle (Crispin Letts) is there. The dog has gone missing.

Anyone who has experienced the excoriating wit and sarcasm of Father in their own lives will wince as he cuts through any possibilities of warmth or sentimentality.

You rapidly realise that these people have long since ceased to hear each other. Son wants to talk about the girl he is in love with. Daughter wants to talk about her own fears. Mother wants to pretend it’s all right really. Father has decided to put the house on the market.

A bright young realtor arrives to meet a possible buyer, who has asked his wife and her lawyer-brother to come along, and a builder-decorator to advise on brightening the old house up.

The Open House moves between near tragedy and broad farce and back again – it’s a roller-coaster of laughs and shocks, dark reality and surreal comedy. Director Michael Boyd manages the changes of pace that keep you on the edge of your seat, and an excellent cast capture all the brittle brilliance of Eno’s spare but poetic dialogue.

It’s no cosy winter warmer – rather it’s like a bracing walk after the turkey and pudding. And that can be a welcome wake-up call!


Photographs by Simon Annand

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