Review: Dealing with Clair (Orange Tree Theatre)

Martin Crimp’s play is revived 30 years after it first premiered

Tom Mothersdale and Hara Yannas in Dealing with Clair
Tom Mothersdale and Hara Yannas in Dealing with Clair
© The Other Richard

What a clever writer Martin Crimp is! And how smart of the Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre to revive his breakthrough play 30 years after it premiered at the same venue.

Time has done nothing to soothe or weaken it. Indeed if anything, the passage of the years has made its probing picture of modern life even more relevant. It's ostensibly a simple study of the business of buying and selling houses. But its opening lines set the tone, as estate agent Clair sits in her tiny box of a flat, the trains juddering by outside, telling her unseen and unheard caller on the telephone: "Aggression, aggression, aggression, not violence."

For this is a portrait of a dog eat dog world, where money talks, and the fact that there are fortunes to be made in buying and selling overturns traditional notions of morality and ethics. The yuppie sellers Mike and Liz start off telling Clair that they want to behave honourably and accept the first offer at their already inflated asking price. But enter mysterious James, a man with ready cash and unfathomable motives, and they are soon laughing at the crumbling spine that afflicts the woman whose bid they have accepted, and gazumping with the best of them.

What's brilliant about Crimp's writing is that without ever straying from the naturalistic and while often being extremely funny, he exposes the couple's evasions with the accuracy of a butterfly collector pinning down his specimens. These are people who have no moral core: they have the traditional English contempt for the other (they are condescending to their Italian au pair, who sleeps in a room without windows), they pretend to worry about the tenants who have moved out but openly rejoice at the improvement to their neighbourhood, they laugh at Clair's clothes behind her back. They can't see themselves.

This makes Fly Davis's set – a box covered with gauze on all sides – the perfect setting for their machinations. Usually I dislike this technique which prevents you seeing the actors. But here it is the ideal metaphor for characters who only perceive the truth as if through a glass darkly. Richard Twyman's direction is equally taut and precise; he lets us gaze into the heart of darkness without ever shifting the tone from the suburban comedy.

For this is a dark piece, make no mistake about it. The fact that its revival opened in the week that the police reopened the investigation into the disappearance, 32 years ago, of estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, digging in the garden of the mother of one of the main suspects, gives horrible topicality to one of its most haunting themes; the vulnerability of young women alone in a room with men. It is a refrain that runs through the piece like a keening note, there in every interaction, and Lizzy Watts as Clair catches exactly her wary neutrality, the way she knows she is involved in a dangerous game but thinks the trappings of her job will lend her protection.

As Mike, Tom Mothersdale is brilliantly repugnant, hiding his avarice and predation behind a mass of nervous ticks and platitudes. There's a wonderful moment – added here – when after a drunken evening with Liz (Hara Yannas, all superiority and airs and graces) he is actually sick in his own mouth, as if the corruption inside him can wait no longer to emerge. Michael Gould brings to the sinister James, a man very much out of the Pinter playbook of terrifying chat up lines, an air of harassed charm and underlying threat. He always waits too long for an answer, leans a little too close; he knows he shouldn't call women girls but does so anyway. Roseanna Frascona as Anna, the au pair and Gabriel Akuwudike in a series of smaller parts, both also make a finely judged mark.

It is a careful and effective production of a resonant and powerful play. The ending is utterly devastating. I walked into the theatre feeling I didn't want to be there; I walked out feeling strangely elated by Crimp's power to reveal important truths. However depressing they are.