King’s Head Theatre – until 30th June 2018
Guest reviewer: Laura Thomas
In The Unbuilt City, a young man and an old woman meet in the house where she has lived since childhood. At first it is difficult to imagine two characters so utterly unlike each other and with so little in common.
Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) is a writer struggling to make a name for himself in his adopted home of Brooklyn. Already seized with a sense of hopelessness, his past is littered with failed relationships, and, fearing the onset of middle age, he has begun to despair. He thinks of life as opportunities missed, and values money as bottled time. As a favour to an old professor, he takes on a seemingly hopeless task; one which, if successful, will enable him to write, uninterrupted, for a year.
The elderly former socialite Claudia (Sandra Dickinson) is coming to the end of a life lived in a palatial Brooklyn townhouse. Radiating frustrated entitlement, she is possessed by a monstrous ego, all hubris and desiccated fury, and has a justified reputation as being a bitter and cantankerous old bitch. The scheming professor, an old adversary, throws the bookish and gentle young author in the path of this runaway train, knowing of Claudia’s weakness for pretty, gay men.
Their meeting, cordial at first, quickly turns sour. The old woman, fully aware of the professor’s machinations, is as sharp as a shard of broken glass and sets out to deconstruct and humiliate the young man. He responds with kindness and honesty and finds (and needs) undreamed of reserves of strength to play mouse and cat with Claudia.
With a decent premise, an excellent set (Erin Green) and a first-rate cast, director Glen Walford sets the play off at a brisk pace, as Dickinson’s needy and monstrous creation snares Jonah in a nauseating miasma of guilt, self-pity and need. Time after time he is on the point of walking out when drawn back into the web, Claudia using his own essential decency against him, whilst endlessly picking away at his sense of self- worth.
Both characters have richly detailed back stories; a poor little rich girl, orphaned in her early twenties and a shy, gay man; but there is excessive exposition and foreshadowing, and the pace sags mid play during an exchange of monologues. At one continuous ninety-minute scene, the work feels too long. Often static, and dialogue heavy, the play demands fierce concentration from the cast, and performance starts to slip at times, the chemistry between the pair starts to falter.
But in the final third, through guts and determination, Dickinson and Chambers manage to get the drama firing again, as the pair engage, change and are changed. The old lady’s raison d’etre swims into focus and her story takes on shape and depth. There’s a nicely handled reveal, and a satisfying resolution.
An interesting and rewarding play from US playwright Keith Bunin, and worth a look.
One of the best plays you’ll see on the fringe this year!
Making Productions & Graffiti Productions
in association with To The Moon
The Unbuilt City
by Keith Bunin
Wednesday 6 June – Saturday 30 June 2018
Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7.00pm Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3.30pm
85 mins (no interval)
King’s Head Theatre
115, Upper Street
Box office:0207 226 8561
£25 (premium); £22.50 (general);
£18.00 (over 60s and equity);
£15.00 (Students, under 18s and unemployed.
How to get there:
The nearest underground stations are Angel (on the Bank branch of the Northern line) and Highbury & Islington (on the Victoria and London Overground lines).
The nearest rail station is Kings Cross St Pancras.
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