Lyricist Hal David is rarely cited as a dramaturgical authority, but when it comes to one-act plays it’s worth clocking his lyric: “Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing that anyone can learn.” As the first of two National Theater double-bills by emerging dramatists proves, judging the scope and length for a short play is tough. D.C. Moore’s punchy “The Swan” drains itself of energy before the end, but Sam Holcroft’s shapely and auspicious “Edgar and Annabel” grows stronger by the minute and leaves auds wanting more.
Smooth professional twentysomething Marianne (Kirsty Bushell) is preparing dinner in her anodyne kitchen but from the second her partner Nick (Trystan Gravelle) arrives, it’s clear something’s amiss. When he produces scripts from his briefcase so they can continue their post-work banter, puzzlement grows.
At first it looks as if Holcroft is simply re-playing the absurdist “we’re only actors” game, but it swiftly becomes clear her use of play-acting has serious narrative intent.Marianne and Nick are consciously performing for a reason. In a recognizable very near future, not unlike Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” their house is wired for sound by unseen authorities. While pretending to be happy couple Edgar and Annabel, Nick and Marianne are actually political freedom fighters communicating with each other by looks and signs while speaking words the authorities expect to hear.
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Holcroft exploits the gap between what is spoken and what’s happening beneath with real zest. Few writers would have the comic audacity to create a scene in which characters secretly and seriously make bombs under the cover of everyone taking turns to sing pumped-up cheesy power-ballads in home karaoke.
She also resists overstatement. The only depiction of the world outside comes via scenes with their controller Miller (Damian O’Hare). But Holcroft ratchets up tension via slips-up caused by the strain of keeping everything secret. The big surprise, however, is that beneath the sci-fi-meets-politics surface, there’s real emotional resonance not just in Bushell’s increasingly frightened performance, but throughout Lyndsey Turner’s crisply played production.
Moore also explores undercurrents in “The Swan,” which takes its name from the seriously run-down local pub that’s to host a wake.
In common with most “after the funeral” dramas, secrets come tumbling out via mouthy characters whose ability to swear (often highly inventively) makes David Mamet sound like a maiden aunt. Moore is intent upon creating characters mostly on a permanent roll of resentment and anger, but who tend to engage brain only after speaking, their loudness pointing up their inarticulacy.
But although there’s trouble brewing for Pippa Bennett-Warner’s sweet but thoughtful Denise about her newly departed stepfather, the revelations don’t add resonance. That’s partly because they come by way of the release of information withheld by the writer in overly convenient fashion via a rediscovered mobile phone.
Polly Findlay’s production in the National’s Paintframe workshop space has authenticity, not least because of Soutra Gilmour’s superbly versatile design, which changes from an end-on staging for Holcroft’s play into Moore’s perfectly grimy pub during the intermission. Yet despite the setting and acting, the second hour-long drama drags because its shape is thematic rather than dramatic.