REVIEW: The Unbuilt City, King’s Head Pub Theatre ✭✭

Last Updated on 24th April 2019

Julian Eaves reviews Keith Bunin’s The Unbuilt City now playing at the King’s Head Pub Theatre.

The Unbuilt City Review
Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson in The Unbuilt City. Photo: PND Photography

The Unbuilt City
King’s Head Pub Theatre,
8th June 2018
2 Stars
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Imagine Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ re-written in the style of a not very well developed or crafted first draft of a Tennessee Williams one-act-play, and you have a good idea of what this show is all about.  Central to it is the beautiful powerhouse performance of Sandra Dickinson, who gives a masterclass in acting skills in a sustained 80 minutes of stage time: on from the very start, she is never off.  There isn’t a dull or wasted moment in her extraordinary bravura turn as Claudia, the inheritrix of an architectural legacy that Jonathan Chambers’ cosy academic, Jonah, is seeking to acquire from her.  Chambers is the co-producer of this two-hander, and he is not to be faulted for sheer guts in pitting himself alongside one of the most experienced actresses in the country, for nearly an hour and a half.  It is, however, a very uneven pairing, and Dickinson remains at all times the primary focus of our interest.

Perhaps this is the way writer Keith Bunin wants it?  He has left a lot – a great deal – of his own biography strewn through the pages of the dialogue, even down to the origins of the academic functionary in Poughkeepsie, NY.  It is as if he has heard the injunction, ‘Write what you know’, and then taken it very literally: we get page after page of excursions and diversions through various by-ways of his life and times; but these seem to be there to pad out time, rather than extend any dramatic argument.  Conversely, the part of Claudia, despite the very, very best efforts of Dickinson, remains rather opaque and lacking a centre.  Possibly, the text would make a more satisfying novella than a play: for, where is the drama, the action, the motive, in her life?  There seem to be several competing drives at work, and they appear to get switched on and off almost at random, robbing the play of any feeling of shape, or purpose, and leaving her character, for all the talk she is given to speak, remaining unilluminated and remote.

The Unbuilt City Review Kings Head Theatre
Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson in The Unbuilt City. Photo: PND Photography

Apart from the steady tippling of whiskey, there is just one theatrical action: there is a cabinet on stage and – yes – something does eventually get taken out of it, to no-one’s real surprise.  This makes the play staggeringly static.  The feeling of having nowhere to go may be tantalisingly fraught in Beckett, but in a naturalistic play like this, it seems little more than frustrating and irritating.  Alongside it we get chat.  Endless prattle.  Director Glen Walford keeps her two players very close for virtually the whole duration of the show, especially at the start (when, oddly, there seems to be the widest gulf between them); and when they are not chummily standing around together, they launch into peculiar addresses to the audience through a never very clearly established fourth wall.  Why?  Are we meant to be involved in their lives?  If so, how?  It was mystifying to me.

Claudia’s house is, we are carefully told, famously chilly.  But we wonder.  Erin Green’s choice of design – a broad sweep of soft folds of russet curtain at the back, with a carpet of woven arabesques on a rich red background, and an easy-chair with a large square of terra-cotta cushion, and part of a warmly glittering gilt picture frame serving as a suggestion of a window, and Tim Deiling’s golden lighting, ALL deafeningly declare the precise opposite.  And then there is the intimate proximity of the pair of characters.  Again, why?  I had no idea.  Were they huddling together for warmth?  It hardly seemed credible.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest problem with this script.  Credibility.  For all its heart-on-the-sleeve earnestness – and the Press Night audience was thronged with friends and relatives eager to appreciate the loving sentimentality stitched through this event – this show never seemed to me to create a believable situation or characters that I should take seriously.  Yes, it does give Ms Dickinson another massive role – she was last seen in another colossal undertaking as the title female role in ‘I Loved Lucy’ – and that is wonderful (or, it will be, when she has nailed down all the lines), but, like that other script, it doesn’t give her a good play.

Dickinson is working hard and has great talents to offer the public.  She really deserves better scripts.

Until 30 June 2018


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