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Review: Buried Child (Trafalgar Studios)

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan star alongside Jeremy Irvine in Sam Shepard's play

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Right on cue, the Rust Belt lands in the West End. Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize winner is set on an Illinois farm that hasn't grown anything in more than three decades and, stagnating inside, is an old farming family in a state of decay, its American Dreams crumbled to dust and old resentments coming home to roost.

Writing in 1978, just after Jimmy Carter (a former farmer himself) had taken the White House following years of 'stagflation,' Shepard shows us an America on its knees. Dodge (Ed Harris) is in a one-man depression, sinking into his sofa with a bottle tucked out of sight, as his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), in long-term mourning for their model, murdered son Ansel, potters about upstairs. In his faded check shirt, Harris almost disappears, chameleon-like, into the beige tartan of his settee – a man gone missing in his own home.

His two surviving sons are all but crocked too – physically, in the case of Gary Shelford's grisly amputee Bradley, who almost scalps his sleeping father when shaving his head, and mentally, in that of their eldest Tilden (Barnaby Kay). A gentle soul driven out of his wits by the death of an infant son, he keeps walking in, covered in soil, cradling armfuls of root veg pulled out of the earth.

Undoubtedly Shepard lays it on a bit thick – and yet the edge of schlock is as moreish as it is noirish. If the first act is over-cryptic, stuffed full of secrets and strange behaviour, it only serves to draw you deeper into Scott Elliott's staging – each person a puzzle to be pored over. The tone is Harold Pinter meets Eugene O'Neill – a great family drama with a bitumen black heart; The Homecoming via Little House on the Prairie.

Our route in comes with two new arrivals. Dodge's grandson Vince (Jeremy Irvine) and his girlfriend Shelly drive in from New York – the Birdland sticker on his instrument case a reminder of that city's woes. With his soft quiff and turtle neck, Irvine's the spit of James Dean, only when nobody recognises him after six years away, he drinks himself into dishevelment and ends up raging on the porch of designer Derek McLane's dilapidated farmhouse like a snarling Jack Nicholson.

Shelly, meanwhile, is the Sunshine State girl who turns up expecting an idyllic first family meet and greet, only to find herself abandoned and intimidated in this old haunted house. Charlotte Hope plays her with a brilliant breeziness, coughing up cigarette smoke like a cute Disney critter. She throws open the windows like Snow White, only for them to squeak back shut of their own accord.

She holds her own next to Harris – quite some achievement. As Dodge, he's captivating; the sort of contained cinematic performance that pulls an audience in close. Coughing like an old tractor, he plays up his decrepitude and, when he's sure no-one's looking, takes everything in – a dictatorial old codger of whom you can't quite get the measure. He flashes conspiratorial glances – or are they threatening glares – at the sons that ought to have flown the nest by now, and both Kay and Shelford are cack-handed and intimidating presences. All of them show you the boys beneath the surface, adults made infantile and dependent in uselessness; their masculinity in crisis, their family deeply dysfunctional, and their America crying out for resuscitation.

Buried Child runs at Trafalgar Studios until 18 February.