‘The tragedy of bed and breakfast’ – those are the words used by Elias (Tom Mothersdale) to describe the setting of Annie Baker’s bizarre, but brilliant play, John. The play, which ran previously at New York’s Signature Theatre, and now occupies the Dorfman at the National tells the story of the suitably unlikable Elias and his sweet, yet passive-aggressive, complicated and unfaithful girlfriend Jenny (Anneika Rose), a Brooklyn couple very much on-the-rocks, and their stay at a twee, bric-a-brac B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by the enchanting, grandmotherly and somewhat dotty Mertis, a role inhabited with exquisite conviction by Marylouise Burke. During their stay, the couple, played with commendable chemistry (or perhaps anti-chemistry) by Mothersdale and Rose, meet Genevieve (June Watson), Mertis’s blind, and knowingly insane best friend. On ground haunted by the ghosts of thousands of civil war dead, the ghosts of Elias and Jenny’s relationship are rarely far beneath the surface.
A special mention ought firstly to be made of the set. Designed by Chloe Lamford, the room in which we spend the entirety of the play is a captivating jumble of knick knacks, a ragbag assembly of dolls, statues, souvenirs, models and the like. And though the audience stays in this room the entire time, the action does not. The play seems to make few concessions for the most elementary ‘requirements’ of staging, something that is ostensibly clear in the opening moments, as the new guests are shown to their rooms, upstairs and off-stage.
Muffled conversation continues as the couple and their host become acquainted, and we, the audience, are left staring at a stage full of dolls, which are in turn staring back at us, and wondering whether the actors will come back. Moments such as these, in combination with the life-like, meandering pace of the play, orchestrated beautifully by director James Macdonald, and full of pauses and half-expressed thoughts, seem to be set up in deliberate opposition to ideas of pretence and deception, the result of which is something that feels remarkably and unashamedly real. This sense of authenticity, of realness is particularly surprising given how much of the play concerns itself with what is not discernably real: a ghoulish blurred photograph of a haunted bedroom, a rustling noise which only Genevieve can hear, and perhaps most obviously the unseen, and yet apparently ever-present husband, and co-owner of the B&B, George.
For all its sensitivity and its spookiness, it should not be forgotten that the play is also a rollicking laugh. Though one felt in the first act that Baker was perhaps trying too hard, and moving somewhat too close to the realms of laugh-tracked American sitcom, once the characters were fully developed and differentiated, the laughs come more naturally, and the cogs of the comedy machine begin to turn more smoothly, with much greater reward. Indeed the comedy was undoubtedly at its most potent when it was trying less hard, and we were allowed to simply enjoy the set-up of the play itself as a sort of comic set-piece, involving the coming together of opposite worlds.
It is because of this that despite the overwhelming sadness and frustration of the central plot, John is, in a strange sense, very much life-affirming. In a room full of dolls of various description, and of course a packed house of audience members, Mertis asks her young guest, ‘Do you ever feel like you’re being watched, Jenny?’ The question is dealt with by all the play’s characters in some way, all of whom attest to having felt some kind of domineering presence watching them throughout their lives. Indeed it is only in her blindness that Genevieve has escaped the sense of being watched.
In a truly memorable speech, which takes place between the second and third acts, and in front of the curtain, Genevieve offers a soliloquy on madness and blindness, in which she claims her blindness has brought her to the centre of the universe. We spend much of the time trying to work out if Genevieve is mad, or prophetic, the answer is, I think, some delicious cocktail of the two, testament to Watson’s captivating performance. Regardless, she serves in many senses, as a portal in the play; a portal to the divine, the mystic, the other-worldly. She lifts the play out of its domesticity, and allows it to speak to the universe.
In John, Baker introduces more mysteries than she resolves, but such is the charm of the play. She is not interested in tying up loose ends or validating the audience’s suspicions, but rather in creating a world of unending possibility. It is in recounting the story of when she met her husband George, whose existence is questioned a number of times in the play, both by us and by Elias and Jenny, that Mertis claims she felt as though ‘anything’s possible’. If George is possible then anything’s possible, if we don’t have to see to believe, then the world, as presented in John, is something larger, more comforting and more exciting than anything we could imagine.