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The Red Barn: David Hare's beautifully staged thriller delivers style over substance ★★★

Elizabeth Debicki and Mark Strong are brilliant in this National Theatre production – but it lacks the power it promises, says Kasia Delgado

Published: Tuesday, 18th October 2016 at 1:00 pm

Glamour envelops the stage in Dave Hare's 1960s-set The Red Barn – and it's very easy on the eye.


The characters are dressed snappily and the set, created by Bunny Christie, is bold, beautiful and elegant. Visually, the play – adapted from a novel called La Main by Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon – is akin to an episode of Mad Men. You'd like to step into their world just to experience such style.

The acting is also brilliantly sophisticated. The cast give subtle, chilling performances which constantly have you guessing their motives, unsure of what they might do next. Mark Strong plays Donald Dodd, a Connecticut lawyer, whose old friend, Ray Sanders, died after the two men and their wives were caught in a snow storm on the way back from a New Year’s Eve party.

We meet the characters during the snow storm – staged as realistically as it would be in a film with roaring winds and snow – and see flashbacks to the party and what happened that fatal night. Ray's wife Mona (The Night Manager's excellent Elizabeth Debicki) and Donald's wife Ingrid (Hope Davis) find themselves entangled in a mire of sexual jealousy, repression and control.

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However, the play, directed by Robert Icke, is so high-concept – we see flashy Manhattan apartments, blizzards, a country home – that The Red Barn suffers from the classic problem of the set design upstaging the play itself. It might have worked better as a film.

While the actors are wonderful, the story itself lacks the thrill it promises at the beginning. The impressive set, ominous music, physical glamour all suggest this is going to be the sort of play that will have you clutching your knees, but it's a little disappointing. 

The clinical, controlled exchanges between the characters make you feel tense, just like those unspoken moments of power play in Pinter's work, but it never gets quite as exciting as the threatening atmosphere suggests it might. 

David Hare's play has all the components of a spine-chiller – death, money and sex – but it left me feeling lukewarm. 

The Red Barn is at the Lyttelton Theatre until 17 January

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