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What else ever follows a storm outbreak other than a stranger turning up at the door seeking shelter? This two-hander from Paul Bradshaw and Naomi Miller — inspired by their own conversation during a storm — plays with this mystery premise in a slow-burning unravelling of secrets in the American south.
The stranger in question is Lucy, a meek kindergarten teacher who arrives at the farm of emotionally guarded Joe. As they wait out the wild weather in the wild west, they retreat into the past, from Lucy’s stressful job and the death of Joe’s wife. With the storm unrelenting and Lucy interrogating Joe about his absent family, their inchoate companionship becomes volatile.
The split-screen duologue is simply staged. Chloe Stally-Gibson lights them plainly from above, against a black backdrop, suggesting the clear-cut divisions of light and dark, good and bad, which the piece gradually complicates. The action is equally minimal: at most, they play a card game quietly sussing each other out. There’s lots of stillness, which suits the atmosphere of memory and sombre reflection, but you feel its chilliness would be more intense and engaging in a theatre than on-screen.
Bradshaw’s understated direction and slow pace create this subtle enigmatic quality effectively, but it’s overpowered by atmospherics. Raging elements provide a relentless soundscape of billowing wind, lashing rain and chuntering trains, and comes crashing into the drama in a belated climax reminiscent of the conclusion to Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate. You’re expected to believe something suspenseful is happening on the basis of sound design, without the fragmented dialogue escalating.
The storm is one of several ways the piece also feels inspired by Tennessee Williams. Two disparate souls bonding over anguish as a storm arrives reminded me of The Night of the Iguana. But while Williams balances lighter, uplifting moments, this is heavily bleak and downbeat. There’s little contrast to hook us: they’re both phlegmatic and introverted, without enough development for us to mine what’s not being said.
However, the performances make these characters engrossing. Evelyn Hoskins’ marble-like eyes — piercing yet dark and unsettlingly blank, screening deeper thoughts — create a sense of deception and unknowability. Ben Turner’s plaid shirt and rough facial hair reflect a down-to-earth honesty, punctuating every cherished memory with a laugh forced out to overcome tears and reignite his lost good life. However, their flat, lethargic accents and lingering over every pause stall the building momentum.
More effective at creating the thriller energy is the unease created by the camera’s uncomfortable close-ups. Even their presumed eye contact appears directed at us, almost implicating us in their combative questioning and the unpredictable sense of threat. The above-the-shoulder shots crop out body language, and their fidgeting is hidden from view, so there’s less for us to read and anticipate their actions like the drawing of weapons.
It may not be a barnstorming reinterpretation of the bourbon-drinking stereotypes of outback Southern American life, and I prefer narratives that don’t rely on ‘no one’s who they seem.’ But it’s a good way to seek shelter from our own currently turbulent weather.
The Barn was live-streamed on 7 May 2021. For more information, visit The Turbine Theatre online.