Evening at the Talk House (Dorfman, National Theatre)

Ian Rickson directs the world premiere of Wallace Shawn’s new play

There’s a moment in Wallace Shawn‘s play – a world première – when you think: was this written yesterday? It’s in a speech about dropping bombs casually on certain people who pose a threat to us, like dropping waste into a toilet, and it’s delivered by a wardrobe mistress (Naomi Wirthner) who’s wised up in the ten years since she worked on the show that she and others have convened to celebrate.

Shawn, who is best known as an actor for the movies Manhattan, Radio Days and for playing his friend John Lahr in Prick Up Your Ears, is an awkward, fresh, hard-headed and delightful American playwright, now aged 72.

Shawn himself is often on stage, too – he looks like a demented, cuddly homunculus – notably in The Fever and My Dinner with André, and he is again here in this reunion in a cosy club. He plays a has-been actor, Dick, who has been badly beaten up by old friends; rightly so, he says, with a characteristic, ludicrous magnanimity.

Nonetheless, Dick is a gate-crasher at his own lament for not having been cast in the original production of Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars written by Robert (played by Josh Hamilton) who has slid into the more congenial groove of writing for a hit television show also starring the same actor, suave Tom (Simon Shepherd), who displaced Dick.

Shawn’s writing has always been coloured by the constant shift of focus, the surprise lengthy monologue, the sexual candour and the frank, and frankly comical, but also philosophical, assimilation of concern over famine, war and genocide in foreign parts into American social and intellectual conversation. He makes hay in the gap between liberal guilt and the pragmatic dealing with that guilt.

And also, in this play, there's a creative sense of dissatisfaction with the theatre as a place to discuss these issues anyway: an élite group addressing an élite audience, allied to nostalgia for a time when the process might have been more plausible. The waitress Jane (Sinéad Matthews), an aspiring actress, has, in the interim, become an undercover angel of death, administering fatal injections anonymously, often randomly, in Eastern Europe and Nigeria.

The producer of Robert’s play (Joseph Mydell) is now a slick talent agent, the composer (Stuart Milligan) a cynical joker. Only the club hostess, Nellie (Anna Calder-Marshall), is exactly the same as she was and she fights to make the others conform to the past as well. But violence and bad feeling have taken over. The party becomes a wake for the idea of theatre itself, an epitaph. But a living epitaph.

Dick hints at what’s been lost in a fabulous, ornate speech from the play he never delivered as does the design of the Quay Brothers (costumes are by Soutra Gilmour) in slyly mixing the clubroom panelled interior with a medieval tapestry of the lost Nirvana, intermittently shaken by Neil Austin‘s poetic lighting. Ian Rickson‘s production only falters in some elisions between sections but is otherwise fully attuned to the weirdness and wonder of Shawn’s writing.

Evening at the Talk House runs in the Dorfman Theatre until 30 March 2016.