Bug, Found111, London ★★★★

Commissioned for The Reviews Hub.

In a seedy motel room somewhere in Oklahoma, Agnes (Kate Fleetwood) finds sanctuary from the outside world – including the threat of her abusive ex-husband, newly released from prison. When her friend and coworker introduces her to war veteran Peter (James Norton), he seems the opposite to her ex: gentle, reserved, tentatively affectionate. As they get to know each other, though, his PTSD-inspired paranoia seems to take physical form, as the couple find their room increasingly infected with insects.

Tracy Letts’ play, celebrating twenty years since its debut at Notting Hill’s Gate theatre before a long off-Broadway run and a 2006 film directed by The Exorcist’s William Friedkin, is a claustrophobic chiller that builds its tension slowly. In its first act, the main threat is Agnes’ ex, Jerry, who in Alec Newman’s hands is a cold, calculatingly brutal man who expects to be able to walk straight out of prison and back into punching his partner. On paper, it feels like a stereotype, a means of looking at life on the breadline that assumes that cocaine use and domestic violence are to be expected. But it’s Fleetwood’s vulnerability as Agnes that makes Letts’ piece work, as she struggles to find something to believe in. Further backstory involving the loss of her son provides more sympathy for this broken woman, making the apparent saviour in the form of Norton’s Peter all the more welcome.

But it is when Peter first finds himself being bitten by an unseen insect that the play begins to move into less conventional territory. Initially apparently justified in his discomfort at being bitten, Norton’s measured performance elicits sympathy even as his character begins to reveal his fractures, with his tales of experimentation by US forces on their own troops during the first Gulf war. Even as he begins to unravel, the glimmers of happiness that occasionally shoot across Fleetwood’s face feel like it may be worth putting up with his increasingly odd behaviour.

It is as the second act progresses that events begin to truly unravel, with the motel room becoming dominated by fly papers and bug spray, and Peter’s body becoming pocked with wounds. As Ronnie, Agnes’ coworker, Daisy Lewis moves effortlessly from the first act’s comic relief to the play’s conscience, looking out for her friend and getting more and more distraught that she is moving from one bad relationship to another, even worse one.

Lewis, though, like Newman and Carl Prekopp as the doctor who tries to help the couple, is incidental to the powerful duet at the heart of Letts’ electrifying escalation of obsessive paranoia. Fleetwood and Norton hold the attention throughout, each finding the other in their growing mutual disconnection from reality. Each character has long monologues documenting conspiracy theories which, while a dispassionate soul would dismiss out of hand, feel frighteningly plausible in the hands of two actors who inhabit their characters so completely.

Ben Stones’s set design, enhanced by evocative lighting designed by Richard Howell, adds to the air of claustrophobia in a play that never strays from the one room, although Found111’s awkward spaces make some of the play’s climactic moments less effective than they ought to be. Coupled with ridiculously compact and uncomfortable seating that seems to assume that all audience members are malnourished, it sometimes feels as if the discomfort which one should, and does, feel from the characters is being overwhelmed by a venue that seems to prefer audience quantity over quality.

Commissioned for The Reviews Hub.

See also: Photo preview: James Norton in Bug, Found 111

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