Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London SW1
Opened 21 October, 2008

After the near-impenetrable thickets of his period piece I’ll Be The Devil, Leo Butler returns to matters nearer home. Much nearer, in fact, since Dave, one of the antagonists in this two-hander, has like Butler moved from Sheffield to London. Dave did a runner on family and debts; now, after ten years, his estranged wife Joanne visits his studio flat in Shoreditch looking for closure, an explanation, or at the very least impregnation, since at 39 she is deafened by the ticking of her biological clock.
It is tempting to say that there is a third character: London. Emma Laxton’s sound design keeps noises drifting into the flat from outside the window or from the DIY enthusiast upstairs. The confinement of the city, too, is evoked in William Fricker and Rae Smith’s set, which lays the entire flat out (sans interior walls) actual-size and puts the audience above on all four sides, peering down at the action as if into a cockpit. And Dave and Joanne go at it like fighting cocks: Dave may have reinvented himself with his PowerBook and chorizo-and-cannellini-bean salad, but Joanne is unremittingly aggressive in her barbs implying that he has betrayed his authenticity. As eventually becomes apparent, what he betrayed principally was their marriage and their accrued debts; yet the more Joanne (and Butler) attempts to parallel this with a corresponding moral debt, the more the financial aspect paradoxically diminishes.
The current crisis of credit-driven capitalism makes this aspect of the play rather topical; I wonder whether, given the opportunity, Butler would rework this vein of it to make more connections between past and present, and between the easy terms available to newlywed Dave and Joanne in the late ’80s and their occasional references to Thatcher as (still) the embodiment of the social and economic ills of their lives, both then and in legacy. I suspect, though, that the play would not bear such tightening; in the end, its 100 minutes come down to an enraged set-piece speech by Dave followed by a wistful, despairing one from Joanne, then a hinted rapprochement. Amanda Drew and, especially, Con O’Neill give strong, relentless performances as they are scrutinised from all sides, but in the end London is too big and various to be reduced to a symbol.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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