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FringeReview UK 2018

Dealing with Clair

Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre Co-Production

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

This Orange Tree Theatre revival directed by Richard Twyman of a play premiered there thirty years before, is co-produced with English Touring Theatre. Fly Davis’ gauze-cubed set in Joshua Carr’s lighting suggests a place relentlessly on display. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound opens and nearly closes with railways pitched to screaming point; and pop music. Lisa Aitken ensures only the estate agents dress at all distinctively, save a single dressing-gown.

Till December 1st.


It’s unnerving to find the starting-point of this play, premiered here at the Orange Tree exactly thirty years ago, dug up in the first week of its superb revival. And while the part inspiration of Martin Crimp’s Dealing with Clair might derive in part from estate agent Suzy Lamplugh’s disappearance in 1985, that’s neither the point nor necessarily the end of Crimp’s surgical take on vendors and purchasers. As he suggests of home-owners, we’re all Mr Kipper now.


It’s as true in 2018 as 1988, in part because we failed to learn lessons then. Crimp’s only slightly tweaked the text to reflect house-prices. Nothing else, chillingly, needs doing. Here it runs without a break for one hour forty-five.


It’s important too not to assume that Clair’s conclusion is what we assume is Lamplugh’s. Crimp and the cast here are avowedly open on that, and it shifts daily. So should we be. Crimp’s suggestive brilliance, beautifully realised in this co-production with English Touring Theatre directed by Richard Twyman, is the way we use language to applaud ourselves for being the opposite of what we are.


And oppressing women in the very act of three men here denying any such thing. Twice, the eponymous Clair is asked ‘weren’t you the girl crossing the road?’, the man (Mike or later James) bringing himself up for ‘girl’. ‘I must look like somebody else’ Clair responds, as ever, neutrally. But Clair, standing in for the objectification of all young women is unknowable just because she’s assigned a ‘girl’ role, on top of her estate agent one with ‘waitress’ skirt as vendor Mike suggests. Lisa Aitken ensures only the estate agents dress at all distinctively, save a single dressing-gown.


Few of the eight characters in this six-strong ensemble are likeable. There’s just one heart-warming scene, typically round the theme of undetected rising damp and structural decay.


Nothing decayed about Fly Davis’ superb gauze-cubed set, with walls containing the actors who then find only two apertures where they and audience eyeball each other. Beige carpet is all: a few items like a piece of rolled-up carpet to (vainly) hide a stain, and a physical coup at the end. Joshua Carr’s lighting suggests a place relentlessly on display. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound opens and nearly closes with railways pitched to screaming point denoting Clair’s own flat, where we start; and pop music.


Everyone deals with Lizzy Watts’ Clair, because as she explains to her mother in the opening scene – the only one where her nature peeps out – she’s accommodating, efficient, and the simulacra of smart urban living. She can deal with their ‘aggression – not violence’ she distinguishes for her increasingly anxious mother. That might haunt us. She’s dumped estate agent Toby (whom we finally meet later) because instead of splitting the bill he demands individual totals – audience groans of recognition at this point ripple throughout Crimp’s incisive social commentary alongside the litanic use of repeats and mirror language in this play. It’s Clair’s one ethical moment: she believes in etiquette. The ghost of a morally better person. She’s not doing this forever.


No-one’s doing it for ever, as Tom Mothersdale’s Mike and Hara Yannas’ Liz make out, they’ve asked for 750, though nearby sold for 670. And their fourth bedroom where Roseanna Frascona’s Naples-born au pair Anna is boxed-in with no windows and home pictures of Naples is just that: a box-room. She’s there to quieten the baby’s bawls, though Liz has no job. ‘She’s lovely when she’s asleep.’


Despite averring selling is ‘a hateful business’ the couple want to be ‘honourable ‘ though in fact they soon ditch the Shropshire couple their age where the woman has a crumbling spine (cue later for devastating hilarity with a later vendor) still trailing the same mantra. It’s a word that ditched Toby uses of another couple later on only too ready to close a deal because they’d been ‘less than honourably’ dealt with. Gazzumped in fact, a new word in 1988, and not one Crimp indulges. A gleam of warmth threatens when each sexually propositions the other, particularly sad when Liz yanks at Mike’s belt; each time the other rebuffs them.


It’s the mysterious picture dealer, Michael Gould’s urbane James who’s the agent here. Notwithstanding an offer accepted he bulldozes in, tempting with cash buyer status, spotting everything. That stain, the rotten window-sill that causes a builder to replace it, guessing when they’re alone exactly where Clair lives, by the railways where struggling JAMs like her can barely put down a mortgage. Her pull-out sofa that she has to put back or lose the distinction between day and night, and sink defeated. That small glass shelf with her toiletries.


Crimp’s encircling language is chillingly suggestive: a man who knows this much seems almost from another world, with a whiff of brimstone. He never names his wife, and despite her apparent acquiescence she’s not even aware of this purchase. James is always flying out to Rome. He describes the world: he recognizes immediately where those Naples pictures come from. Again though in Gould’s smiling steeliness, you’re persuaded such people exist. Despite Clair’s anger at this needling – ‘I’m like the wall. It’s my job’ – James gets to Clair uniquely: for good or bad, he sees her, her near-meaningless magnolia role.


The mystery is in what choice she makes, with another, very different telephone call with her mother in her railways-shuddered flat.


Even Anna’s not wholly sympathetic, always wandering nonchalantly clad in a dressing-gown, vaguely contemptuous, but who can blame her, exploited, put-upon, underpaid? It’s here Crimp delivers another shiver of humanity with two of Gabriel Akuwudke’s roles: lover Vittorio whom Anna speaks to in Italian, and Ashley the builder who wife – also Anna – is from Turin ‘ you know – Fiat’. Ashley pronounces Italian well too. Gently without any of the objectification elsewhere (aimed at her by Mike and Toby) he shows Anna where the cracks are. Significantly not even James spots them. And for her cigarette, she can always ask a plumber for a match. Crimp says he likes to be cruel and tender; this is all we have of the latter.


The spiralling price and climax, its denouement and open-ended conclusions hint at the more seismic worlds Crimp will go on to perpetrate. Here they’re nascent in an excoriating mastery of glance and nuance. It’s as if Crimp’s already rabbit-punching his way out of the gauze.


Twyman’s first-class revival adds layers and skeins nothing out. While Watts and Gould put in superb performances of charming dark and blankness baffled by rough customers and sexism, everyone’s excellent. Mothersdale’s amiable Mike carries an undertow of snarl, as with Yannas’ Liz, hardening her tone with Anna. Best is when they interact in a shuffling interplay of denials, tossing ‘honourably’ between them like a hot potato. Frascona and Akuwudike – neatly bland as Toby too – pitch normality like a brief tent on the ground of capital shifting under their feet. Superb and horribly timely, as we crest the next crash – one came months after the premiere. Caveat emptor.