Ed Harris finally makes his debut in the West End and his performance in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer prize-winning drama is a riveting masterclass in understatement that has been well worth the wait.
As Dodge, the ailing head of a family whose Illinois farm went into decline years ago, Harris never moves from the sofa, but holds the audience spellbound as he coughs and wheezes his way through the day while half-watching baseball on TV. He takes slugs from a bottle of whiskey hidden under a cushion and dishes out barbed comments to his wife Halie (beautifully played by Amy Madigan) and adult sons — the man-child Tilden (Barnaby Kay) and bitter amputee Bradley (Gary Shelford).
Amy Madigan and Charlotte Hope in Buried Child (photos by Johan Persson)
There are periods in director Scott Elliott’s sombre production when not very much happens at all and the tiniest details are nuanced to within an inch of their life. But it all serves to build an air of menace and discomfort because this is a family in denial about unspoken secrets.
All have retreated into their own worlds. Dodge seeks comfort in the bottom of a bottle, Halie has found religion and a dubious relationship with the local priest, while Tilden spends his time pointlessly digging up vegetables from fields at the back of the house.
It’s the unexpected arrival of long lost grandson Vince and his feisty girlfriend Shelly (impressive West End debuts from Jeremy Irvine and Game of Thrones’ Charlotte Hope) that upsets the fragile balance and provides the catalyst for these secrets to come to the fore and resentments to boil over. And Shepard goes to some very dark places indeed.
The tension is slowly built and the dialogue expertly crafted, but the script is as potent for what is not said as what is — Halie’s obsession with preserving the memory of a third son whose death is never fully explained, for example.
Despite the conclusion being both moving and powerful, strands are left hanging and questions unanswered, which all adds to a feeling of unease that will linger long in the memory.
Buried Child is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 February