Smart, tense living
MARTIN CRIMP’S enigmatic portrait of a dysfunctional relationship leaves you sorting the real from the imagined. And although The City is an elusive puzzle of a play, the sense persists that the answers to the questions it poses — why are Clair (Hattie Morahan) and Chris (Benedict Cumberbatch) so unhappy? How much of what they tell each other is true? What is the nature of the trauma they are suffering? — are tantalisingly close.
The play begins with the audaciously mundane line: “How was your day?” Clair’s answer to Chris’s question — she met a stranger at Waterloo Station called Mohamed who told her of the torture that he had suffered — sets the strange tone for a series of dialogues with which Crimp builds his play and Katie Mitchell her tense production.
What we know about Clair and Chris — that they live, according to Vicky Mortimer’s minimalist design, in a smart townhouse; that Chris is unemployed; that Clair is sexually unsatisfied — is never enough to explain their talkative but uncommunicative relationship.
Answers lie in the play’s strangest elements — the sociopathic nurse (Amanda Hale) who dreams of atrocity, and the eerie little girl (on the press night Matilda Castrey) who might be the couple’s daughter, but probably is not.
The play’s phantom off-stage characters echo Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Except that Crimp is not only reflecting a couple’s condition, but a wider, destructive reality from which they cannot hide. ( Tel: 020 7565 5000)
HARPER REGAN Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1
THIS IS the second time this season that the National has staged a play featuring a woman in mid-life crisis. But whereas Lucinda Coxon’s comedy HappyNow? asked whether the middle-class idyll of children, affluence and career adds up to happiness, Simon Stephens’s heroine is pushed to the brink by a far less comfortable condition.
Harper Regan’s father is dying; her obsessive boss refuses to give her leave; her architect husband is unemployed; her teenage daughter’s school fees are mounting up and, to cap it all, she is over 40. Despite the threat of losing her job, she travels to Manchester to see her father who dies before she gets there. Something has got to give, and it does.
THE CITY Royal Court, London SW1
Harper (Lesley Sharp) spirals into an odyssey, taking in, or at least touching on, Manchester’s underbelly. There is a brutal encounter with a rabidly antisemitic journalist who hates the way “Jews smell”. Harper rejects his unwanted advances by glassing him in the throat. There are similarities in this descent to David Mamet’s Edmund, and Stephens deploys a similarly rhythmic, muscular dialogue, though without Mamet’s smart wit.
Still, Marianne Elliott’s excellent production poignantly delivers Stephens’s vision of an England populated by isolated individuals, each bearing their own grudges and brand of bitterness. And in the demanding title role, Sharp delivers a wonderfully varied performance — sardonic, vulnerable and angry — but always managing to transmit a good heart. ( Tel: 020 7452 3000)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Matilda Castrey in the enigmatic The City