If the theatre is an art-form where the word is boss, Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses pushes that maxim to its full capacity. His 2014 Broadway surprise is a world where the word is everything. Oh, not to communicate feelings in the way we have come to expect, but to deflect, block and drift into non-sequitur in a way that stops feeling ripping out at the seams. For a play that doesn’t stop speaking, it takes a long time for anything to be said. But Eno’s magic is to show us this is the way of the world, language expounded to camouflage the purpose of what its characters want to say. In his fascinating, slippery programme notes, Eno talks about the influence of Chekhov on this play and as this piece begins to heat up the tragi-comic masterpieces that the Russian master wrote, begin to grip ever tighter in their influences.
In Peter McKintosh’s clever mirror design, two sets of Joneses; married, neighbours, drifting; come together one night. Bob (Corey Johnson) and Jennifer (Sharon Small) are the older couple, caught in a world in which youthful idealism has slipped into the day to day drudge of being closer to cashing that last cheque. Pony (Clare Foster) and John (Jack Laskey) are the younger couple; naive, innocent; yet perhaps calling all the shots. Both men are suffering from a nerve disease that is affecting the language centre of their brains. The emptiness of language to convey feeling at the heart of the work mirrors their own feeling that words really aren’t enough.
Eno throws in plenty of doubles throughout. A scene in a supermarket where it looks like John may want to seduce Jennifer later takes the shape as Pony stares intently at Bob. Both men find support in the wife of the other who both desperately scramble to understand their own husbands. Its structure lets the play breathe even while seeming to tie itself into ever more complicated knots. The mirrors symbolise these two similar couples and the cardboard boxes that represent tables, cabinets and various household furniture perhaps symbolise the slight sense of impermanence that living with a disease provides. The future is as solid as a box provides.
Director Simon Evan’s production keeps the words at its centre. There is very little physical intimacy between the pairs, everyone keeping everything at bay, only through language, so that when a hug finally arrives it feels momentous. The last scene where the two couples lazily stroke arms, leave hands absent-mindedly on legs is riveting simply because we have been denied it before. It’s a brave decision, one that does leave the work feeling chilly for a substantial amount of its 105 minute playing time but one that does just about justify itself by it’s close, mostly helped by its strong quartet.
This is another work from the Ustinov that features a feast of great acting. Laskey and Johnson are two sides of one illness, Laskey spinning into ever more webs as the illness takes hold while Johnson provides the heaviness of one who has lived with the illness for longer. As the two women, Foster and Small show the loneliness which living with a partner with illness can induce. Foster’s wide beam mask can’t help mask the tears rolling down her cheek while Small’s reaction to potentially being propositioned at the supermarket-as she tries to work out if she is being mocked or offered one final chance of something different- is worth the price of admission alone.
There is a sadness behind the sitcom-like deadpan that keeps its audience gripped while still holding it one step removed. Like much of the work here, you find yourself more impressed with it the longer you let it stew rather than necessarily in the space. Yet with Deborah Warner, all set to walk into the job come the Autumn there still feels like no other venue that challenges and enriches its audiences so much.