Creative sound design elevates an otherwise mediocre play from The Writer‘s Ella Hickson – ★★★

The audience is all ears for the National Theatre’s latest Dorfman production. Listening in through individual headsets, we are the fly on the wall eavesdropping on a relationship in post-war Berlin. It’s a symbolic artistic decision for a script set in a suspicious and apprehensive Germany, but nothing more.

Phoebe Fox (A View From The Bridge) is the title character and the only performer mic’d up in ANNA‘s 65-minute running time. We hear what Anna hears, which hones our focus on an unsettled protagonist as much as it limits our perspective of the wider story. If an actor is not in close proximity to Fox, then their lines become background noise. Whole dinner party conversations are lost as a result of poor audio, weak projection and unfortunate direction (from Machinal‘s Natalie Abrahami).

Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham do well to emphasise the tense atmosphere and ambience in Vicki Mortimer, but their imaginative composition can only be appreciated in moments of darkness. When the lights are down and Anna walks around her living room in the darkness, it’s the opening of a door and the scratch of a record player which guides us through the scenes in what are the most exciting moments in this disorientating production.

Strip away the elaborate audio gimmicks and we’re left with a basic story about a wife and husband in a turbulent relationship and an unwelcome dinner guest. Fox exudes anxiety and confidence in equal measure in what becomes a stressful evening for the protagonist, and displays some tense and gripping chemistry alongside Poldark actor Max Bennett. Quiz‘s Paul Blazely also delivers a respectable portrayal of Anna’s husband, Hans.

What’s supposed to enhance their performances – that is, an experimental approach to sound in theatre – instead becomes a distraction to an extent where the production would likely be more impactful without the technicalities.

At the curtain call comes a final plea: keep us safeno spoilers, the lettering held up by the cast reads. For a show all about secrets, it’s a fitting request. If only there were enough secrets to spoil…

This review is of a preview performance. ANNA is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 15 June.