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Dying City

Christopher Shinn
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2006)

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American playwright Christopher Shinn has already built a big reputation as a writer of important plays about society and people, especially younger ones, today.

Dying City hardly needs the Court's impressive air conditioning to send a chill down the spine. It is a deeply moving and ultimately powerful play that draws unforgettable performances from its actors, greatly to the credit of director James MacDonald.

The Royal Court has always had a reputation for dealing with the big issues of the day. Therefore, it should come as no great surprise that both this 90 minute play and Simon Stephens' Motortown, playing Downstairs at the same time, are about the impact of the War in Iraq on its combatants and those in their slipstream.

In an echo of Shinn's The Coming World, Andrew Scott plays twins in an highly charged performance that might just earn him a best actor award. He has the inbuilt advantage of portraying two contrasting men and, offering diverse performances in a double opportunity to shine, reaches a peak as one of his characters finally cracks up.

Sîan Brooke, who after a season with the RSC aged so successfully in Harvest in the Theatre Downstairs last year, once again shows her versatility as Kelly, a wife and therapist. Like her brother-in-law Peter, a successful film actor, she is forced to confront personal demons following the death of her husband Craig in Baghdad, the Dying City of the title.

The play follows two timelines, the night before Craig's departure in mid-2004 and an uncomfortable reunion one year on.

In the up-to-date scenes, despite Kelly's concerted efforts, Peter eventually tracks her down in a desperate attempt to come to terms with his brother's death. The pair then talk through their equally unhappy lives, both suffering from a kind of reflected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the death of the man who made sense of both of their lives.

Shinn slowly develops the story of Craig, the seemingly perfect Harvard graduate with a darker centre, who was called to Iraq from the army reserve. At first, the pair eulogise a man who lost his life in a war that he initially blindly supported but gradually began to see through.

In time though as scenes jump backwards and forwards, we build a picture of three troubled individuals and how they loved and hated each other, and the influences that made them what they became.

By the end, one knows each of them well, particularly the sensitive, gay Peter, a wonderful creation who immediately brings to mind New York friends, as much for his body language and speech patterns as his lifestyle and attitudes.

Dying City combines a painful portrait of New Yorkers today with some oblique but sadly telling commentary on the War in Iraq, never more so than when Craig's problems are compared to those of his father, a Vietnam veteran. With its flowing dialogue and superb acting, this short but intense play is highly recommended.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher