Review: Death Tax, Royal Court

“You’ve made up, in your head, a whole story about it”

Round two for the Royal Court’s six-week weekly rep sees Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax getting the intensive treatment of being put together in just a week, for a short run in the downstairs theatre. An ambitious project to be sure and one which got off to a challenging start last week with The President Has Come To See You, but this feels like firmer territory both in terms of stronger writing and a surer grasp from the company on the material. It may be as simple as the fact that I saw the first play earlier in the week than the second but the rough and ready approach seems better suited here.

Maxine is an 80 year old resident of a Florida nursing home and she thinks the world is out to get her, convinced that her daughter has paid her nurse to speed up her demise in order to beat a change in inheritance tax law. So she makes the nurse a counter-offer, a big pay-out if she stays alive until after the deadline. But with her health declining, all bets are off as to whether she will make it, assisted or otherwise, and Hnath shrewdly probes the motivations that push us to make the kind of morally questionable decisions that his characters face.

This he does through a carefully constructed series of scenes which constantly test our preconceptions and assumptions as what we know is turned on its head and each viewpoint given a fully realised turn on the soapbox. There’s a strong gift for dialogue here and a fascinating insight into human nature that is serviced well by the plot – Hnath’s head clearly brimming with ideas, perhaps overly so where the last scene and its big curveball are concerned.

But John Tiffany’s production felt punchy and strong and has been cast extremely well from within the company. Anna Calder-Marshall, having a richly prolific year thus far, is excellent as Maxine and Siobhan Redmond makes a convincing daughter with her enigmatic motives. And Natasha Gordon as the nurse Tina also excels at playing the shades of grey between right and wrong, dragging in her kindly doctor ex/doormat into her scheme, Sam Troughton in rather adorable form. 

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd June

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