REVIEW: THE UNBUILT CITY (Kings Head) ★★
A battle of the generations to decide the fate of art, comes to the small stage at the King’s Head theatre in Islington. Witty and thoughtful though it is, the play lacks substance and is spoiled by poor execution.
New York writer Keith Bunin has taken a break from screenwriting to pen this ode to civic communitarianism and the possibilities of his home town. Young designer Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) has been sent to interview eccentric recluse Claudia (Sandra Dickinson) to find out if she holds a crucial piece of architectural history (a model by long dead architect Graham Wilcox). Claudia has to decide if Jonah is worthy of this legacy and tests his idealism to find out.
Most of the conversation between the two, battles between Claudia’s cynicism and disillusionment; and Jonah’s enthusiasm and sense of hope. Claudia slowly reveals her own past, sets out how she lost her faith and why she retreated from society. Jonah explains how he developed his passion for the City and the people in it. There is a lot of poetry in Bunin’s dialogue, the description of money as time is particularly effective but the obvious barb at an unnamed Trump, as a property developer of gaudy rubbish with their names in 10-foot letters, reveals an underlying political dimension.
Veteran theatre director Glen Walford keeps things simple but doesn’t encourage naturalism from her cast. Monologues are not delivered in conversation but standing in front of the other actor to speak to the audience. Erin Green’s design is also straightforward and minimalist but bears no resemblance to the environment that is being described by the characters. Critically at the moment of the big reveal, it was a shame that no one behind the front row could actually see what was being brought out.
This all, literally, gives the actors the stage but sadly Sandra Dickinson, despite her obvious charm, seemed to really struggle. Her performance featured too many mistakes and missteps and whilst this might have been a choice to reflect the intellectual decline of the character, it only succeeded in mangling some of the jokes. When Dickinson does get it right she delivers pathos with an impressive power and depth, so as the run continues these moments should have more impact.
In contrast, Chambers is solid if unspectacular and competently delivers his side of the conversation. The suspicion was that he also had to dig his colleague out of a hole every so often.
If Bunin’s script had been delivered brilliantly then this would have been a more than decent play, but sadly the mistakes spoilt the experience and proved too much of a distraction.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: PND Photography