Though this not-so-festive frightener shares its name with the Edgar Allan Poe short story, let’s be clear: this is not an adaptation. Instead Anthony Nielsen’s production (he is both writer and director) riffs gleefully on the themes and motifs of Poe’s gothic tale: madness, guilt, and the act of seeing, and being seen.
Tamara Lawrance (who stars in BBC1’s The Long Song, which starts on 18 December) is debut playwright Celeste Allen, who, in the opening scene, turns down a prestigious award. Amid the resulting uproar (“Judi Dench called me a hypocrite”) she retreats to an attic room in Brighton to write her follow-up, where she’s befriended by her frank, eccentric landlady Nora (Imogen Doel), who wears a bulbous mask over one eye.
Both are delightful – and very funny – but Lawrance is particularly impressive, by turns swaggeringly sanctimonious and painfully exposed. As she struggles to write she focuses instead on improving Nora, loftily insisting that she won’t be bothered by the appearance of her disfigured eye. But then the mask comes off…
It’s the first sharp twist of many – there’s a slight sense of Nielsen’s metafictional, improvisational script spiralling in on itself – but the performances, including that of David Carlyle, who plays two incarnations of a policeman, have enough conviction to ground the action, even as it borders on the farcical.
The melodrama is ramped up in a second half full of horror movie tropes, as Francis O’Connor’s spare, evocative set comes eerily alive; the attic’s large windows are an apt canvas for an ever-changing sky, full of clouds and crows one minute and pink dusky light the next.
Amid the carnage, there’s comedy, too: Nielsen pokes fun not just at his own work but theatre as a whole, even art itself. These in-jokes get the biggest laughs, such as when Carlyle, as a policeman with theatrical ambitions, delivers his lukewarm verdict on the musical Company (currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre, to rapturous reviews): “Eh,” he shrugs.
There are a handful of moments some may find disturbing: an unnervingly visceral portrayal of a hanging, for example. And as a treatment of facial disfigurement it is, obviously, not exactly sensitive. But by repeatedly making both his industry and his own work the punchline of his play, Nielsen is making a point: let’s not take any of this too seriously.
The Tell-Tale Heart is at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until 8 January. Box office 020 7452 3000