National Theatre, London ★★★★✩
THERE is simply no playwright like Annie Baker. She splits audiences like Brexit, and for those in the remain camp, she’s perhaps the most innovative writer in America. (The leavers tend to do just that, abandoning half way through what can be a three-hour play.)
This drama — the third to appear at the National’s Dorfman space — is a mere two hours and offers an ambiguous treatise on the value of storytelling by presenting a tale in which pretty much nothing happens at all.
On a disconcertingly over-large set, seven men, one of them black, and one woman (the presence of the latter two is purposefully tokenistic) sit round a corporate, oval table brainstorming stories in front of Conleth Hill’s shaggy-haired team leader Sandy.
The mood is a bit Silicon Valley meets Hollywood studio pitch as they share personal tales — about the first time they had sex, their biggest regret etc. Yet the bigger narrative they are here to create — possibly for a faceless entertainment conglomerate — remains elusive.
Baker co-directs and she’s absolutely the right choice; exactly tuned into the eerie rhythms of her overlapping dialogue. She coaxes performances of pitch-perfect naturalism from her cast (which also includes Doctor Who and Broadchurch star Arthur Darvill).
It’s hyper real, surreally odd and extremely funny. Imogen Doel, who plays Sandy’s eager secretary — whose rapid-change outfits mark the disorientating passing of the days and weeks — elicits laughter by her very appearance.
Outside the room there are hints of apocalypse — dreadful weather, a sense everything is terrible — while Hill’s Sandy gradually changes from maverick creative to tyrannical maven.
The plot stretches on, increasingly pointlessly and potentially forever, yet within Baker’s narrative endgame, stories proliferate in ways that highlight both the essential role of storytelling in the culture and the ease with which they are commodified.