Strange, mysterious but not very interesting is how I would sum up Martin Crimp’s eighty-minute play The City at the Royal Court. A marriage between a translator, Clair (bewitching Hattie Morahan), and a city type, Chris (brilliant emotional twitcher Benedict Cumberbatch), who loses his job, is attended by a wacky nurse (the delightful, very funny Amanda Hale) and their own little eight year-old daughter.

Nurse and daughter wear the same clothes. The latter has a fumbling go at Schubert’s F-minor “moment musical” on a shiny grand piano that dominates a single scene in Vicki Mortimer’s otherwise grey design which in turn conveys the sad truth of the play’s time and place as “blank.”

The nurse has a complaint about noise levels. The parents can’t cope with each other. It’s almost God of Carnage all over again. Then it suddenly turns into Christmas, with Clair lunging at the nurse with a knife – let me get my coat and my wife, as Sondheim didn’t quite say.

This companion piece to Crimp’s The Country (2000), is indulgently directed by Katie Mitchell, and fails to ignite on a stage where marital incompatibility has been hot from Look Back in Anger to Ted Whitehead’s explosive Alpha Beta and beyond.

The aesthetic idea is one of bland anonymity. Each scene is interrupted by a hideous pseudo-concrete curtain descending like a guillotine. Clair and Chris compare notes on their respective days over a glass of white wine. We end with Chris sadly reciting from a diary, a birthday gift from Clair, which places all the characters in a fictional limbo of ambiguity.

That diary is the work of a writer, Mohammed, whom Clair has accompanied to a literary conference in Lisbon. Did she have an affair with him (echoes of Pinter’s The Lover)? The nurse’s partner is similarly remote and unspecified, a doctor in a secret foreign war where everyone has to be killed, but not by him.

Crimp’s style is curdling dangerously into sub-Pinterish elusiveness. Perhaps there is some buried guilt about “originality” (Crimp has been lately lost in translation of Moliere, Ionesco, Chekhov and Brecht.) The whole play is finally encased in a literary conceit, although Chris’s defiant “reality” is to take a new job as a supermarket assistant like an old school friend. Somebody once asked Christopher Hampton was he writing a new play or was it still “just” the translations. Crimp’s effort to make theatrical metaphor of this tragic dilemma is admirable but fatally underpowered.

- Michael Coveney