A raging storm is a great basis for drama, a chance for a writer to build tension, for pressured character interactions to finally simmer over and when the break comes, to ultimately move into a clearer future. From Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson going toe to toe in Key Largo to that crucial battering between Big Daddy and son Brick in the cellar of their mansion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the snow storm that contains the characters in The Red Barn and The Mousetrap, being cut off from the outside world by the elements with no means of communication or escape gives an instant shape to the thriller.
Paul Bradshaw and Naomi Miller’s new play The Barn, performed as a one-night-only semi-staged preview at the Turbine Theatre and made available via Stream Theatre creates its scenario with care; a ramshackle and isolated home on the edge of the woods, a lonely man with no family or friends, the arrival of a stranger needing help, plenty of innocent conversation, some bourbon and a raging storm that pounds and blows throughout the two hour duration of this slow-burn story.
With only a week until theatres finally reopen and a flood of exciting season announcements pouring in, the focus on new work is more important than ever and an appropriate conclusion to almost fourteen months in which digital theatre created opportunities for all kinds of work to be accessed more easily. And The Barn made excellent use of its medium, a tense and gripping two-hander that was suited to the unflinching intimacy of the camera while emphasising its stage credentials by helping the audience to visualise elements of the scenario.
And in that nod to its future stage life, Bradshaw and Miller’s play was wholly successful in creating a broader impression of the eventual set design as well as the flow of movement around the single room in which the action takes place across two Acts. Like an audio drama, this called on the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps, prompted only by sparing stage directions read aloud off-screen to give context to the characters’ actions and some carefully chosen audio effects, crucial to the atmospheric charge of The Barn.
The story itself is deceptively simple – two Texan strangers, Joe and Lucy, flung together by chance – and much of the play is conversational as the pair make awkward small talk initially before warming to their various themes as the hours pass and the drinks flow. There is talk of family relationships, childhood games and farming the Texan landscape before their experience of tragedy and grief starts to infect the discussion, helping the audience to slowly make sense of the present. Across that time, the pair play cards and participate in small domestic rituals that intriguingly belie their status as unknown quantities to one another.
Bradshaw and Miller have created a highly discursive duologue punctuated with moments of intense drama and changes of mood that guide the audience with skill through this complex narrative to the story’s satisfying final moments. Nothing here is tangential, even if it feels so at the time, and there is a tight focus to the writing that even in this parred back format with none of the tricks of the stage to enhance it, drives the action forward, providing two dense character studies within the thriller format. Bradshaw and Miller navigate that line really well, as past and present collide and implode, serving both our understanding of Joe and Lucy as well as the building connection between them.
The ever-present effect of memory and how it shapes the present is a key theme in this play with homeowner Joe living a half-life in his 1983-set home. Due to a double family tragedy years before, Joe is now entirely alone apart from his beloved dog, his sole companion and comfort. We learn that generations of his family once owned a profitable dairy farm in the area, a trade his father insisted would be lucrative as long as people wanted milk and cheese, yet the whole plot was sold long ago and during his guardianship for reasons that remain obscured.
But Bradshaw and Miller never present Joe as deliberately mysterious or suspicious, he is instead a man wrapped in grief for all the things he has lost, a man who once had everything but now can only go on living in the Chekhovian sense with no hope or thought of a different kind of future. Joe is a character whose life has stopped in any meaningful way, the last of his name with little to show for his efforts who is couched in the painful but comforting memories of a happier past.
Again none of this is overtly designed and it is a really interesting way to present a character, a man who just ‘is’, who welcomes a bedraggled stranger in from the rain, offering them shelter and company. That Joe’s remote and dilapidated home becomes a symbol of the man is thoughtfully achieved; filled with stuff piled haphazardly around the room which Joe barely sees and has never sorted through, and using the steady drips of rain collecting in strategically placed buckets along with the precarious fragility of the structure as the storm rages, we see that Joe too has hidden depths of feeling and experience as the events of the play chip away at his equally brittle facade. The crumbling house is a strong metaphor for what is to come as the arrival of Lucy slowly creates cracks through which Joe’s character and the circumstances of his life come more clearly into focus.
Lucy is a complete contrast in many ways, an innocent arriving with tales of a broken down car, an all-American girl who couldn’t be more stereotypically perfect (for the 1983 setting) – a sweet-mannered young wife, devoted to unseen husband Mitch, baking pies and speaking with a wide-eyed wonder about the world they have experienced beyond Texas include the glamour of a honeymoon trip to the Poconos with a heart-shaped bath tub and a round bed. Lucy speaks with animation about the cinematic romance of it, her one chance to almost live like the people in the magazines she loves to read.
That Lucy is not all she seems will be no surprise – a fundamental principle of the thriller being that no one is – but Bradshaw and Miller take their time with this character, letting her win over the audience just as she does with Joe as she chatters about her life, dominating the dialogue in Act One as she ingratiates herself into his home and tries to help him with some of the domestic activities like feeding the dog and emptying the overflowing buckets.
The first, very subtle, hint given that Lucy has a quite different agenda happens over several games of cards which the characters play for many minutes while talking about other things. Joe easily wins the first few hands and while the writers draw no particular attention to it, the game doesn’t end until Lucy wins, pleased to have distracted Joe sufficiently to present an indisputable winning hand – finely drawn though this small event is, Lucy’s need to beat her competitor is a notable character trait, essential to the play’s conclusion and the increasingly pugilistic nature of their interaction.
The ability to write sharply taut and semi-loaded dialogue disguised as casual conversation is something that Bradshaw and Miller do extremely well, holding the audience’s attention throughout the drama and only a second viewing, with the knowledge of its conclusion, will reveal the many layers they build through the play’s structure from the start. Especially engaging is how well the tone shifts between Lucy and Joe, fueled by increased familiarity and drink – as the night wears on, Lucy becomes emboldened, challenging her interlocutor directly and taking time to let him unravel.
As the power shifts between them, who is in control of the conversation becomes important with Joe providing hospitality and bare essential facts in Act One as Lucy talks openly, while across Act Two, Lucy waits for her moment as she becomes more accusatory, more judgmental as Joe descends into inebriated defensiveness. Its cat and mouse stuff of course but so well shaped, so rich and almost camouflaged by Bradshaw and Miller that just who is the pursuer and who the victim remains ambiguous for some time.
The directorial choices are interesting ones and while performed onsite at the Turbine Theatre, the actors are clearly separated, shown in split screen and the focus for both is head and shoulders throughout with nothing but darkness around them. When either Lucy or Joe leave the room, the image of the remaining character fills the screen – a useful compromise – while activities like the card playing are off-screen gestures, read as stage directions or are enhanced by the evocative use of sound effects to create the lashing rain and wind – even the occasional rumble of trains through the actual theatre only adds to the atmosphere. That all of this is performed live adds considerably to the energy and intensity of The Barn and makes its anticipated transition to the stage all the more exciting a prospect.
With so many different ways to create digital theatre, this unflinching approach is hugely exposing for both actors who rise to the challenge magnificently, conveying the whole world of the play and their character’s interior lives so vividly. That the absence of a real audience and their own physical separation is barely noticeable is remarkable. Ben Turner is just so good as Joe, giving this incredibly nuanced performance that holds the audience captive. With no props or set to rely on, Turner at first shows the character’s essential goodness, a caring concern for his guest and an easy companion who tries to put her at ease in his home.
Yet as the story unfolds, Joe becomes slowly more inebriated and it is as though Turner’s whole face goes into soft-focus. This is not roaring, slurring or obvious drunkness, but a really precise change of the features, an inability to focus the eyes and a world-weariness that suddenly descends on the character that Turner almost indefinably turns-up as the final confrontation looms. In the last moments of the play when his now broken character is once again left alone in the ruins of the evening, Turner is astounding, pained, ashamed, unable to make his thoughts connect, it is almost sympathetic and a powerful note to end on.
Evelyn Hoskins is equally good as Lucy in what is in some ways a harder role to distinguish as she conveys her girlish enthusiasms and goodness without making the character either too bland or too suspicious before the narrative has sufficiently laid the groundwork for the audience to facilitate that shift in perspective. Like Lucy, Hoskins bides her time, building a particular image of Lucy that may or may not be true, before gradually introducing discordant notes like a moment of inappropriate activity when Joe’s back is turned. Hoskins gives very little away in the intrusive camera close-ups, maintaining her perfect facade even with the audience.
The second Act gives Hoskins the chance to expand beyond the confines of the fiction Lucy is creating, as her attitude to Joe markedly shifts, quietly letting him talk and fiercely questioning his actions as the truth spills out. In this, Hoskins is as ferocious as Turner is defeated, a growing strength and determination emerges that gives the final revelation and Lucy’s decision to pursue it an increased impact.
As with any thriller, when a writer asks the audience to bear with them and to invest in the route to an outcome, the denouement can sometimes feel underwhelming or unlikely – just ask Line of Duty of Game of Thrones fans. But here, Bradshaw and Miller just about sidestep the melodrama with some strong final speeches and that muscular ending to reorientate the story we have been told in order to move quickly between cause and consequence. With its tones of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and more recently Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, The Barn is a gripping two act piece whose perfect storm of story, tone and character will be a must-see on stage before too long.