Gritty new writing powerhouse the Royal Court often seems embarrassed by its hyper-posh Sloane Square address – which part-explains new boss Vicky Featherstone’s decision to stage her theatre’s big summer play off-site.
But this Haggerston community centre is an inspired venue to decamp to, in that US playwright Annie Baker’s fantastically deadpan play is set in a near-identical building in New England. Director James MacDonald uses the verity of the location superbly in a production that’s delivered with all the po-faced, lo-fi élan of a good Christopher Guest mockumentary.
Heading the cast in her Royal Court debut (of sorts), Imelda Staunton is entirely wonderful as Marty, the good-hearted, slightly condescending leader of a small-town acting group, an unbearably serene woman whose life gracefully falls apart over six weeks of ludicrous dramatic exercises.
Toby Jones is splendid as the pathologically awkward Schultz, a repressed divorcee who has clearly joined the group out of a sense of loneliness rather than any desire to act.
Which is fine, because as youngest member Lauren (Shannon Tarbet) is bemused to discover, the group doesn’t do any actual acting – the class is more like a weird, non-specific therapy session for people who don’t want to face up to the fact they’re in dire emotional straits.
Playing out in short, po-faced scenes that usually end during a particularly awkward pause, Baker’s writing is compassionate, cinematic (in an understated sort of way) and wonderfully, wonderfully droll. She never patronises her emotionally stunted oddballs, but she has a great eye for small-town tics and eccentricities. And after two hours of gentle build she finds a payoff that’s both emotionally appropriate and appropriately quirky.
Speaking of transformations: a doff of the cap to dialect coach Penny Dwyer. The American accents are uniformly flawless, with Fenella Woolgar – an actor I’d always assumed could only ‘do’ posh – revelatory as shifty hippie chick Teresa.
By Andrzej Lukowski