Tyrannical dads literally and symbolically dominate a huge amount of American drama. They invariably represent the weight of the country’s past, the stifling of its future or the toxic reality of its dreams.
Will Eno’s ‘The Open House’ – co-produced between Theatre Royal Bath and The Print Room, and the third of the American writer’s plays to appear at the Notting Hill venue – seems tied to that tradition, before exhilaratingly flipping it (and flipping a finger at it).
Son (Ralph Davis) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) dutifully come home for possibly the most joyless parental wedding anniversary ever. Along with Mother (Teresa Banham) and Uncle (Crispin Letts), they are relentlessly bullied and verbally abused by the wheelchair-bound Father (Greg Hicks).
Eno’s writing cuts to the heart of family anxieties and baby boomers shackled to a previous generation’s money. His dialogue is like a series of razor slashes, opening gaping wounds. Hicks’s masterfully unpleasant Father is a curled, gnarled thing, twisted with embittered malice and spite. Any feeble defence offered by his family is trampled on.
Director Michael Boyd skilfully renders Eno’s picture of middle-class despair yoked desperately to a loveless formality as a painfully static portrait. No one moves, as if so accustomed to their roles, they don’t even think to change seats. Caught in amber, they’re stuck behind closed curtains, with no sunlight allowed in.
But then, after each character – apart from Father – escapes the house to undertake various errands, Eno transforms the play into one of cathartic symmetry. When Campbell returns, she’s no longer the fragile, beaten-down Daughter, but a breezy real estate agent. Gradually, all of the cast reappear – all in new guises.
The ensemble switch brilliantly between roles. It’s basically the cheeriest home invasion ever – and it’s the perfect comeuppance to Father, who has put the house up for sale in a fit of spite. Blank wallpaper is stripped back to reveal colour, and the house is suddenly full of potential buyers, activity and life.
It’s shocking in its suddenness and it’s only really possible because of a potential background tragedy. There’s something unsettling in the remorseless change that Eno and Boyd quite literally bring into the light as one new character flings open the curtains. But it’s also satisfying to see Father disempowered, his words rendered useless. No status quo has to be permanent and no tyrant lasts forever.