The Short Version: Caryl Churchill’s late 80s thriller, about an American couple who meet their distant English relations and get caught up in a murder.
The Review: The play starts a little slow. The first three scenes are confusing and not entirely cohesive… there’s a 40-something American couple and they’re in England and they’re looking around at something and it gets confusing. You don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re there. But then they meet a 20-something pair of siblings who are distantly related to them and the play kicks into gear. Suddenly there’s a sense of tension and menace about the play – Phil, the brother, is a Hitchcockian villain and the play turns into a “Man Who Knew Too Much” sort of nightmare.
Then, at the halfway point, it shoots forward a year and crosses the pond, turning into a strange (albeit still nightmarish) American travelogue. Phil and Jaq come to visit their relatives and send the Americans into a state of disarray: they believe that they’re still in danger of being found out for the murder Phil committed right in front of them in England. But when they realize that things aren’t so dire… they warm up to the siblings again. It’s Phil’s unexpected death that sends Jaq out into the wilds of America and where she encounters some creepy stereotypes straight out of American horror movies.
But the play ends without any real sense of… anything. The tension, if this play’s done right, never fades and instead we see just a strange and rather warped view of two societies, filtered through the lens of pyschopathy. Phil and Jaq are both, as it turns out, murderous and their relatives are so passive and docile that the relations themselves seem tenuous at best. Mostly, the whole thing feels a bit tenuous if you think about it too much. The tossed-off scene of Phil getting physically intimate with Vera is odd – much as the scene between Jaq and the professor is jarring and somewhat mercurial in tone. There’s a lot of interesting possibilities here but it feels like Churchill never quite lets them off the leash. The recurring images of forests and hidden bodies is allowed to creep up but it never takes over into something actually scary.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I think, in a well-handled production, this would be a cracking thriller. I mean really seriously intense – but I think it could also feel like a copout, like a fizzle. There are a lot of differences between Brits and Americans (how we say “ice cream” is only one of them) but when you’re playing with broadly stroked stereotypes, you have to really punch it so that it doesn’t feel cliche or flat. This walks that very fine line.