The Tell-Tale Heart at the Dorfman Theatre: ‘a bizarre, grotesque, and un-nerving play that festively fits within the Christmas tradition of spectral hauntings’

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews The Tell-Tale Heart, an unexpected Christmas delight from the National Theatre.

Everybody loves a ghost story at Christmas, right? There has long been a tradition of ghost stories told at Christmas.Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1997 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, hell, if you believe some rather convincing fan theories, Rowan Atkinson’s character in Love Actually. Maybe it’s the early darkness or the long shadows cast by the much-needed fires to keep warm. Waiting for The Tell-Tale Heart to begin the Dorfman Theatre, I rather enjoyed the Christmas music playing and the projected falling snowflakes on the curtain in front of me. That the source material for Anthony Neilson’s play was the short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, however, should have given a hint that what I was about to see would be a bizarre, grotesque, and un-nerving play that festively fits within the Christmas tradition of spectral hauntings.

Poe’s original tale involves a guest murdering their landlord and hiding the body. In Neilson’s play, which he also directs, Camille (Tamara Lawrance) is renting the attic room from Imogen Doel’s Nora following an Award Ceremony that went horribly wrong. The hope for Lawrance’s writer is that staying out of London will provide inspiration for her new play. Nora wears a protective mask over one eye that since childhood has signalled her as an outsider. Driven by disgust, Camille kills her Llndlady (as in Poe) and what follows are the psychological repercussions of this event that are framed by the interviews with the Detective (David Carlyle).

This Christmas, will be…a very special Christmas!

Act one of The Tell-Tale Heart proceeds normally, showing the growing relationship between the two women who offer the other support. Camille helps Nora overcome her shyness about wearing her eye-mask, whilst the latter claims to see the heart of the former. This is what prompts Camille to kill Nora, and act two begins a confusing series of scenes that depict nightmares, fake realities, and even a fake ending, all with gothic horror and surreal design. 

Tamara Lawrance in The Tell-Tale Heart.

Francis O’Connor has designed a clever set that depicts the top-floor of a Brighton townhouse, but like the oneiric nature of the play itself the surface does not always show the truth. The wall to the bathroom becomes transparent at points to let us see a bloody workshop for dismemberment whilst the frame of the skeleton rafters of the roof itself can be seen, implying a dilapidated building. Once the nightmarish terror of the show begins a pulsing follow spot goes into the audience, doors open and shut of their own accord and eggs fall onto the stage. If this last one seems rather bizarre, that is because it is: the protruding disfigurement on Nora’s face becomes a focus point for much of the latter half of the play. As to exactly how, I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

The Tell-Tale Heart is unapologetically gross. It’s little surprise one audience member threw up at the climax of Act One, yet other than the superb staging and suspense, like some of the crudest horror it can feel as if this production is all surface. Postmodern jibs at the National Theatre, Poe’s story or even the play itself litter the show and for despite the excited enjoyment to be had from the grotesque humour the show does go on for twenty minutes too long. All of the actors put in strong performances: Carylyle’s humour matches Doel’s zany timing and Lawrance’s seriousness perfectly. Like all the ghost stories told at Christmas, The Tell-Tale Heart is an enjoyable way to spend an evening and it might in years to come become a favourite for those inclined to some horror mixed in with their festive cheer. For me, I’ll be happy never to have eggnog again…ever…     


The Tell-Tale Heart is at the Dorfman Theatre until the 8th January, 2019.

Production and feature photographs by Manuel Harlan.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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