Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The City

Martin Crimp
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2008)

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The one thing you know with Martin Crimp is that, bar the sense of unease, nothing is predictable in his work. Like Caryl Churchill, he seems to regard reinventing himself every time as a mark of existing.

This time, there might have been the thought that The City would be a companion piece or response to his other work on the same stage in 2000, The Country. The two might be connected but only in that sense of menace and mystery in a not very happy marriage.

Katie Mitchell, who has become Crimp's director of choice, has chosen to complement a minimalist play with the barest of sets. Her designer Vicki Mortimer provides a spacious, white box with a single large prop in each scene, plus the odd chair and low volume white noise.

For 80 minutes, The City provides a year of vignettes in the lives of an attractive young couple of the kind that could easily be drawn from a typical Sloane Square audience.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Christopher, a somewhat irascible businessman worried about losing his job in a global downturn. Hattie Morahan plays Clair, his more laid back wife, who shares her name with a Crimp character from twenty years ago.

Like almost any contemporary intellectuals it seems, they tend to talk rather than listen, so their conversations are closer to dual monologues than dialogue.

While Clair, a translator of foreign literature, talks about meeting a writer and the disappearance of his young daughter with a mysterious nurse, Chris is more concerned about office politics.

In succeeding scenes, we meet Amanda Hale as a mad neighbour called Jenny, who is perhaps not coincidentally a nurse and then the couple's cute unnamed daughter, at the opening performance sweetly played by Matilda Castrey.

So far, we have done no more than hear things that cannot be pieced together with any certainty. Gradually, strange concurrences begin to appear in this dreamlike, disconnected play.

The girl and the nurse dress identically, figures talked about in one scene make appearances in slightly distorted form in later ones.

Along the way, we witness a power struggle between a wife who is growing in stature as her husband, unemployed then amusingly downgraded, diminishes.

The final scene brings all four figures on to the stage together for the first time and like any good detective story, or Shakespeare for that matter, attempts to bring at least some of the diverse strands together. A final monologue read by Chris from Clair's second-hand diary reveals greater meaning than had ever seemed likely, while begging more questions than it resolves.

Thanks to two beautifully judged central performances, strongly supported; and enough mystery to keep viewers intrigued, The City is a rather compelling, if incredibly tangential, miniature of life in the arty classes.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher