An anniversary should be a time for celebration but the family at the heart of Will Eno's The Open House, coming together one Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the wedding anniversary of Mother and Father, don't have much to smile about. They are trapped in their own form of purgatory, playing familiar strings that have been heard before. Father is wheelchair bound and coruscating, destroying everyone around him with blisteringly withering one-liners, his children trapped like a doe in the headlights at the carnage they know is coming. Uncle is cast as an outsider always looking in while Mother is all plastered bonhomie, attempting to hide away the deadness inside in forced attempts at connection.
Like the Tyrone's or Lowman's of the Great American Drama, this is a family dripping with acid-filled disappointment, lives shattered by what might have been. Father talks about the happiest day of his life, walking hand in hand with an angel, life slowing into technicolour snapshots when he parted with her, he met Mother in the line going home. Uncle lost his one true love in a tornado, taken in, he is always an outsider in this family, cast as an outsider and always left strictly on the outside. Mother disappears from the cruel reality of life into her books, the tragedy here is that she never gets time to read. Eno is keen to point out they are archetypes, never given names, just titles. Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Uncle. Five souls trapped in a cycle that goes round and round Dante's never-ending circle of hell. And to make it worse the dog has gone missing.
Yet just as the blackness threatens to engulf, Eno flicks a button and in a clever switch invites lightness to come in. The curtains are pulled back and daylight streams in, wallpaper is stripped and colour is added to Tom Piper's deliberately muted set. A home is as interchangeable as the family who occupy it, what once felt suffocatingly bleak soon becomes a place full of possibility. It even wraps up with a cuteness overload cameo designed to warm the most glacial of hearts. Somehow Eno has written a play that you could take the grandchildren to for Christmas.
It's a play full of echoes from the canon, not just the expected titans of mid 20th century American theatre but also most pertinently of Pinter and Pirandello. It is a tricky play to get right but Michael Boyd's production is meticulous, packed full of telling detail and shaped by five terrific performances. At its heart is Greg Hicks' patriarch, dripping with venom as he goes on the offensive but also somehow still sympathetic as his security begins to be stripped around him. He shows a man whose defensive shield has become so ingrained that any chinks of tenderness and true human emotion are lost forever. Hicks may be one of our most underrated actors but it's another performance to show he is one of our greatest. Teresa Banham is high wattage smile and dead eyes as Mother, recent RADA graduate Ralph Davis and Ustinov regular Lindsey Campbell are the two children perpetually hoping that this time will be different, while Crispin Letts' Uncle is always prowling the outside of the scene as a glue that can't piece this family back together.
2017 for the Ustinov incorporated a smash commercial success with F Murray Abraham selling out the studio with The Mentor, but, for this critic at least, had been lacking a critical hit. Thankfully, at the last, it comes through with an 80-minute work that suggests that family might be hell but there is always a glimmer of hope. The family drama isn't going anywhere yet.
The Open House runs at the Ustinov Studio until 23 December, and then transfers to the Print Room from 18 January to 17 February.