On its première at the Orange Tree in 1988, Dealing With Clair confirmed Martin Crimp's then-rising reputation as a playwright whose phrasing and targets alike were bleakly precise. Its revival under Guy Retallack's direction in the 40-odd-seat Union Theatre beneath a Southwark railway arch shows that little has changed as regards its subject matter except the improbable size of the property prices bandied about in the dialogue.
Dealing With Clair is partly a scathing satire on the Lawson property boom (and thus on the continuing spiral of house prices since) and the avarice it elicits: vendors Mike and Liz begin by stating their determination to settle for the first decent offer for their house, but gradually veer round to justifying their gazumping with lacquer-thin and transparent abrogations of moral responsibility. Crimp uses banal, hollow language whilst leaving no doubt of the hypocrisy and ethical bankruptcy which underlie the platitudes which the couple pat backwards and forwards between themselves.
Intertwined with this, however, is an analogue of the Suzy Lamplugh case of 1986. The Clair of the title is the estate agent handling Mike and Liz's sale who, following several meetings with the eccentric and disquieting prospective buyer James, disappears – she has, we plainly infer, been herself "dealt with". The exchanges between vendors, agent and buyer are full of discreet, petty power-plays, but the same hollowness and circularity of language which elsewhere so meticulously fingers the grasping vendors here exploits its own ambiguity: beneath the imprecision and meaninglessness – a kind of hybrid of Pinter and Mamet – anything could be going on, and we naturally (and rightly) come to suspect the worst.
Our suspicions are perhaps given too easy a time of it by Richard Alleman's performance as James: astringent and semi-detached (no pun intended) at the best of times, he never elicits from us anything other than distrust. As Clair, Katharine Peachey can do little to offset this imbalance in a central role which is so curiously underwritten. John Lucey and Gilly Cohen are nicely, odiously smug as Mike and Liz, congratulating themselves on their probity whilst (literally) closeting their Italian au pair in a windowless "fourth bedroom". Danny de Matos's score uses a single simple descending chord sequence in a variety of sombre arrangements, in an analogous manner to Crimp's placing the same verbal phrases in a succession of differing lights. There's a wealth of nuance and subtext here crammed into barely 90 minutes of playing time and given a straightforward, efficient production.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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