“Dealing With Clair” was written thirty years ago by Martin Crimp in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh. How extraordinary it is then for Richard Twyman’s brilliant revival to open on the very day that the police have reopened the case and begun digging up the back garden of the main suspect’s late mothers house. Still nothing found, but fingers crossed for her poor family that they will find some resolution and peace.
“Dealing With Clair” lifts the lid on suburbia to reveal Disturbia. A world characterised by the macabre, the menacing and the downright malevolent. The set by Fly Davis captures the mood perfectly. A cube surrounded by gauze confines the actors into a cramped space that heightens the feelings of claustrophobia and imprisonment. Fly suggests that the house is a prison and the room is a tomb. This could be a room from a Samuel Beckett play such as “Endgame” or a Pinter piece such as “The Dumb Waiter.” The cube makes us feel like voyeurs looking in. I felt echoes of the film “Peeping Tom.” People keep talking about being overlooked by the railway. The gauze slightly blurs one’s gaze so you have to look harder at faces and characters. We gaze, you might say through a gauze darkly.
Clair (Lizzy Watts) is talking to her mother on the phone. She foreshadows her own fate as she tells her mother that she intends to make a killing and then vanish. The Lady Vanishes. Clair is caught between the nauseating yuppie couple Mike (Tom Mothersdale, wonderful) and Liz (Hara Yannas) who are selling and the mysterious and creepy James (Michael Gould, brilliant) the guzumper cash buyer who deals in art.
Tom Mothersdale and Hara Yannas are superb as the oleaginous couple who hide behind euphemism and evasion to mask their greed. They tell Clair that selling houses is a beastly business and that they want to act honourably. They agree £675k to a couple in Shropshire but then suggest to Clair that perhaps she has been too cautious and she should ask for £750k. They justify this with reference to the windowless fourth bedroom. A cupboard which is home to their teenage Italian nanny Anna (Roseanna Frascona). Mike catches Anna using the landline to phone Italy. He says make it quick, then gets out his wallet, goes as if to give her some cash and then withdraws the offer. Liz reveals her snobbishness in her snide remarks about Clair wearing a skirt that makes her look like a waitress. Her sexual appetite is grotesquely made obvious as she licks and sucks on a Magnum ice-cream, prodding Mike’s groin with her toes and saying come to bed. Mike’s overconsumption of food and wine is shockingly dramatized when he vomits. Vomit live on stage is gross. As a metaphor for sick greedy people its powerful stuff.
The play changes gear from social satire to psychological thriller with the arrival of James. With the build and looks of Ronnie Kray and the intelligence of a professional art dealer he is a truly formidable presence. Think of Goldberg and MaCann in “The Birthday Party” to get a sense of what I mean. Crimp is acutely aware of the power dynamics inherent in all our interactions and he excels in revealing the minutiae of how power works through both body language and in words. Take for example James and his tape measure. His power and dominance are obvious from the way he gets out his retractable tape measure as if it were a gun. It’s an object of phallic power. James is in the house on his own with Clair. He stands close to her, too close. He sinisterly remarks that he knows some men who would take advantage of this situation. Trapped by her role as a smiling people pleaser Clair does just that, she smiles. James makes reference to the vanishing point in art. Does she know about it he asks Clair? We the audience recall Clair’s opening conversation with her mother, make a killing and then vanish. It’s a really chilling moment. From this turning point we witness Clair fall inexorably under James’ persuasive influence. The word “dealing” in the title refers not only to how everyone deals with Clair, but also literally to a card game – snap – that James gets Clair to play with him. He revels in trapping her hand under his as he shouts SNAP. Like the crocodile in Peter Pan he has got her snapped between his jaws.
The eerie and macabre are everywhere in “Dealing With Clair.” For example the turmeric stain on the living room carpet that Mike and Liz try to hide with a yoga mat, or the strange sounds of someone laughing that Clair and James hear when the house is supposedly empty, or the way the builder Ashley (Gabriel Akuwuike) holds his chisel menacingly as he instructs Anna about a crack in the ceiling, but most of all in the mound of earth under the stage. Watch out for it as you leave the theatre.
Review by John O’Brien.