REVIEW: The Antipodes (National Theatre) ★★★

Award winning Annie Baker returns to the National Theatre for the third time and co-directs her latest work about the importance of storytelling. As previously Baker’s set up is to have characters interacting without any particular purpose, although Antipodes lacks the darkness of her last play at the National, John.

Sandy (Coneth Hill) gathers a team of storytellers in a conference room and asks them to reveal the great personal details of their life. This is apparently a form of brainstorming to develop a new project but the play never reveals what this new project actually is. Time passes and the tension mounts, as they get closer to a deadline, although we do not know what for, or what the consequence of failure might be.

Baker’s script explores and deconstructs the role of storytelling but in the style of Harold Pinter and deliberately makes no effort to tell an actual story. Instead, the characters reminisce about losing their virginity, their biggest regrets and debate the meaning of time whilst trying to, somehow, impress an unseen management. Are stories simply an algorithm? Can they shed light into darkness? Will we eventually run out of stories to tell? Clearly, each character has a backstory but only glimpses of these are revealed and it is not certain that any of the information they provide is actually true.

Co-director Chloe Lamford (who also designed the set and costumes) makes sure the characters get the space they need to work. The huge conference table is surrounded by brown leather swivel chairs that mean the cast can also wheel around the garish brown carpet. The only downside to this dose of realism is that in the small Dorfman Theatre space the audience occupies three sides of the stage and depending on their position some of the cast is obscured from view.

The excellent cast all contribute, but Imogen Doel’s standout performance as permanently positive assistant Sarah is particularly joyous. Her character is only briefly encouraged to join in the storytelling but still manages to get most of the laughs. The mix of American and English accents also includes the always brilliant Stuart McQuarrie, who is sadly underused as the reluctant Danny 2. Arthur Darvill is joyously creepy as Dave; Matt Bardock has fun as cheeky Danny 1; Fisayo Akinade as Adam delivers a fantastic alternative creation myth; Hadley Fraser is suitably pompous as Josh; Sinead Matthews is wonderfully kooky as Eleanor; Conleth Hill is enjoyably enigmatic and patronising as Sandy; and Bill Milner brings a surprising darkness to note-taker Brian.

The mix of great performances and sharp dialogue is enjoyable in itself but the lack of any narrative or reason to invest in the characters means one is left feeling something is missing. Baker has a talent for engaging her audience in the discussions of her characters but in this case, perhaps it would have helped to provide a little more context.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington


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