Following the success of 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning The Flick, Annie Baker is back. John, her new gothic tale, is set in a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Once the site of the deadliest battle on American soil, it is now a quiet town steeped in history. With paper-thin walls adorned with dolls, figures and knick-knacks, the house, brought to life by Chloe Lamford, has almost more character than the characters.
The B&B, once a hospital during the war, treads a fine line in between cosy and creepy – as does its owner, Mertis (Marylouise Burke). Equal parts maternal and mysterious, she spends her days tending to guests and writing disturbingly vivid descriptions of the daily sunset in her journal. Visiting this weekend are Elias (Tom Mothersdale), a nerdy and controlling computer programmer/drummer, whose relationship with the bold and bright-eyed Jenny (Anneika Rose) is on the rocks after an affair that we aren’t entirely sure has ended yet. Add Mertis’ friend Genevieve (June Watson) to the mix, blind but somewhat predictably in possession of more foresight than all the others, and the curious quartet is complete.
John really is a bizarre but brilliantly acted piece. Mothersdale’s sensitive and tetchy Elias, complete with understandable trust issues, pairs well with Rose’s bright and tactile Jenny. Burke as Mertis is unnerving, but almost cute, and bears the same disturbing quality as the dolls littered around her home. She is an almost too attentive host, constantly around, always watching. Watson as Genevieve is undoubtedly the enigmatic star of the show. Her omnipresence, eccentricities and riddle-like language give her an otherworldly quality, putting her far beyond her peers. There are moments of surrealism that go unexplained, and don’t seem to fit in with the overarching story at all. But other aspects, like the dolls, tie nicely in to themes of the piece, like the desire to be loved, and “feeling watched” as Jenny puts it, or rather us constantly watching ourselves, considering and curating how we appear to others.
Directed by James Macdonald, John is rather lengthy at over three hours long. There is impeccable attention to detail; details that sometimes feel ineffectual and unimportant to the story. If we forwent watching Mertis move chairs, prepare drinks and turn off lights, 30 minutes might be knocked off the running time. A mixed bag, John feels like a lot about a little, and if you were to ask me what is was about – I couldn’t tell you. It’s abstract nature means that afterwards you find yourself thinking ‘what was all that for?’ But while direction isn’t always clear, what is always present under John’s eerie set and strange characters is human nature. Our desire to be loved and seen, and the inevitability of our mistakes.
John is playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 3 March 2018
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey