Writer: Martin Crimp
Director: Richard Twyman
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s an eerie coincidence that in the same week that Martin Crimp’s play about a female estate agent opens at The Orange Tree, the police announce that they have resumed the search for the body of Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent who disappeared in 1986. This news adds another layer of tension to Dealing With Clair, which is already played on the sharpest knife-edge.
Written in 1988 the original production of Dealing With Clair, also at the Orange Tree, was one of the first plays to examine the new idea of gazumping, when sellers of houses would renege on earlier agreements and take offers from the highest bidders. Mike and Liz are selling their four-bedroom house in London, and tell their estate agent, Clair, that they want to act honourably and accept the first offer made at the asking price. But soon, under Clair’s guidance, their morals crumble when a cash buyer appears interested in their house. This sinister new buyer seems more experienced in this game, and his reasons to keep returning to the house are less than honourable too.
This could be a play about greed permitted by the neoliberalism of the 1980s, though the play is subtly updated to more recent times. However, this is also a play about obsession and power, perhaps also permitted by Thatcher’s brand of capitalism. Here, profit is the only language spoken and people will take all kind of risks to get more than the asking price. Clair meets James, the cash buyer, outside her work hours, in an attempt to seal the deal, despite the increasingly personal questions he asks her. Does she live by the railway tracks? Does she have a fold-up bed? His knowledge of her life is creepily prescient.
Michael Gould plays James perfectly: smug, privileged and powerful. The way he deals with Clair, sidling up towards her or asking her for lunch, is genuinely chilling. As Mike and Liz, Tom Mothersdale and Hara Yannas are suitably slimy, each sanctioning the other’s disintegrating principles. They are stereotypically middle-class with a live-in nanny for the child we never see. It’s easy to laugh at them, but it is also easy to see ourselves in them. Surely, most of us would hold out for more money too? These laughs are uncomfortable laughs of recognition.
To balance these dislikeable characters one would think that Crimp would write a sympathetic Clair, but she remains a cypher. Lizzy Watts plays her cold, and her patient face and practised smiles make it impossible for us to know whether James has guessed right about her living arrangements. She says her walls are painted ‘neutral’ but this doesn’t mean that she won’t take sides in this financial transaction. Instead, she plays both sides for the biggest profit.
Without an interval, this play runs for 105 minutes, but under Richard Twyman’s taut direction it’s never less than gripping, and Fly Davis’s set is worth the ticket price alone. For a theatre that has fixed seating, The Orange Tree always surprises with its sets. Here, Davis has raised the stage and created a room out of four walls of gauze lit with soft blue. Under Joshua Carr’s lights these gauze walls turn solid, and each side of the audience has its own fourth wall revealing dirty deals and dodgy handshakes.
With a new play opening at the National next year, and on the basis of this knockout production of Dealing With Clair, the time is ripe for a Crimp revival. He tells us more about human nature than we possibly may want to know. In pulling up the floorboards of society, who knows what he might find.
Runs until 1 December 2018 | Image: The Other Richard