Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick comes to London’s National from New York, and it has a lot to say, but perhaps it is taking a bit too long to say it.
Avery (Jaygann Ayeh) just started working at a run-down cinema in Massachusetts, one of the last ones that still uses a 35mm film projector. Sam (Matthew Maher), an employee in his 30s, teaches Avery the simple tasks of cleaning the venue. Much of the play is quiet sweeping and mopping, while these two characters slowly get to know each other by discussing big topics (such as disabilities, racism, relationships, depression and even existentialism) with small words.
Theatre’s struggle to represent ‘realness’ is nothing new, but under Sam Gold’s direction Baker’s play comes strikingly close to an authentic presentation of reality. It has a strong fourth wall as the characters sometimes don’t even face us, and Baker’s realistic script is peppered with “um”s, “like”s and “oh”s, never trying to be profound or clever. Her unusually long and occasionally awkward silences give the play an effective pace, allowing us to take in the still images Gold presents to us. It is something to get used to, but eventually you feel quite happy that there is no pressure to constantly think about what it all means: you just have to watch.
Around the three-hour mark, however, the still gaps of the play lose some of their charm and the silences start to make some audience members shift in their seats. This is especially noticeable at the end of the play, when everything has been said and yet we still wait for overstretched entrances and exits.
The actors bring great performances to the stage: Louisa Krause is excellent as the seemingly cold yet subtly insecure Rose, and Ayeh inhabits Avery so well that you wouldn’t even notice that he is a newcomer to the production. Maher, however, steals every scene he is in; his portrayal of Sam is just as hilarious as heart-breaking, and his facial expressions add an extra layer to every moment. The trio’s dynamics are intriguing and truly entertaining to watch, with plenty of subtle undertones that are handled with delicate precision.
The Flick is a multi-layered love letter to film, and talks a lot about what cinema should be. But is this what theatre should be? Some of the stretched-out gaps are filled with meaning, while others seem to be there for continuity’s sake. It is, nevertheless, a unique production with a clear message that perhaps could have been said in less than three hours and 30 minutes.
The Flick is playing at the National Theatre until 15 June. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Mark Douet