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A CurtainUp London LondonReview
Buried Child

You think just because people propagate that they have to love their offspring? — Dodge
Buried Child
Brendan Coyle as Tilden and Lauren Ambrose as Shelly (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Under director Matthew Warchus, Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child has a sparkling revival at London's National Theatre with several American actors guesting in the major roles. Amongst other things, the interest is in the performance of Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose, the girl who plays the enigmatic Claire Fischer in the HBO series.

The opening scene of Buried Child is so dramatic, so exciting, that we know that we are in for an exceptional evening of theatre. Sheet rain falls in rods onto the stage, electronic music sounds the discord, the disharmony that is to be portrayed in this Illinois family and the gaping wooden slats open the building up to the scrutiny of all. From overhead comes the harsh, disembodied voice of an American matron while on the old tattered sofa lies this old man trying to escape from his stale marriage. It is a compelling start.

Shepard's clever first scene monologue from the old woman Halie (Elizabeth Franz) serves two purposes. It concentrates the mind on her words even though she doesn't enter until well into the play. As she calls down from upstairs, there are few visual distractions. It is also a narrative hook to , introduce the audience to the main members of this family-- their weaknesses, their shortcomings, their casualties. Halie gives us a picture of her life before she was married, when she was feted by a breeder of thoroughbred horses and went to the races. Meanwhile, back on the sofa, grumpy Dodge (M. Emmet Walsh) chips away at her pleasurable memories while swigging at a whisky bottle he hides under the sofa.

Enter Tilden (Brendan Coyle), their son, carrying a huge armful of corn cobs. Tilden rips off the outer leaves of the corn as he listens to his mother's complaining and cracks off the stalks -- a powerful action in this play where every directed move is pregnant with interpretation. Only when all the corn has been husked are we allowed to see Halie. Dressed for a fashionable funeral she steps through the sitting room into the incessant rain. Even more bizarre is another son, Bradley (Sean Murray), he with a wooden leg and a predilection for shaving his father's hair off in clumps and leaving grazed areas of his scalp, while the unsuspecting father sleeps.

Into this dysfunction of a family stumbles Vince (Sam Troughton) and his girlfriend Shelly (Lauren Ambrose) on their way from New York to New Mexico to visit Vince's father, Tilden. (They do not know that Tilden is living at home in Illinois.) Immediately the audience has someone to identify with. Shelly is, like us,, an outsider, a sane member of society thrown into this strange house. In a horribly unforgettable scene Bradley makes Shelly stand with her mouth open while he puts his fingers in her mouth. This is a moment full of innuendo, as scary as any rape scene.

After the interval, Shelly and Dodge have formed an alliance against Bradley as they await Vince's return from the liquor store. Halie comes home entirely dressed in yellow with a large bunch of roses and the embarrassed priest (John Rogan) in tow.

So what makes Buried Child so successful as a production? The performances are all outstanding, M.Emmet Walsh's gristly old farmer, living on a farm where everything had ceased to flourish, with not just the crops but the people, withering and falling into decay. Elizabeth Franz's disappointed Halie is unfaithful but with due cause, flirtatious and animated with the priest. Brendan Coyle's gentle Tilden is wonderfully silent. Bradley is sinister and twisted, a wooden leg sticking out from under dungarees which he wears without a shirt. I very much liked Lauren Ambrose, even though from Row O one can't get the full impact of her facial expression. The delivery allows for the passages of Shepard's poetry as he lyrically describes the past.

Buried Child is rich in imagery. Shepard allows us to make our own observations, but these are subtle, understated. Why are the crops growing again? What has been buried in this family? Is this the child within us all? What is a family? How does it pass its tradition on from father to son to grandson? There are enough questions to make this a very fine, satisfying and stimulating revival.

Buried Child
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Matthew Warchus

Starring: M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth Franz
With: Brendan Coyle, Sean Murray, Sam Troughton, Lauren Ambrose, John Rogan
Set Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Natasha Katz
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Gary Yershon
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 15th December 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th September 2004 performance at the Lyttelton, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
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