People keep secrets. They keep things from their nearest and dearest, their friends, random members of the public. They also have a tendency to keep things. When my grandmother died and we were clearing the house, we found every utility bill she had ever received kept in a folder in her desk. I mention this because the idea of keeping secrets and things is at the heart of Keith Bunin’s one-act play, The Unbuilt City which is getting its European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre
The story takes place in the Brooklyn Heights townhouse of Claudia (Sandra Dickinson), a reclusive socialite. It’s a cold February and she is welcoming a visitor in the shape of Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) a young man on a mission, He has two things on his mind. One finding out if Claudia has certain, almost mythical, item in her possession and two, if she has it, convincing her to part with it. This is going to be no easy task. Although she may be in the twilight of her years, Claudia is nobody’s fool and, while Jonah has obviously been picked by someone that knows Claudia’s penchant for handsome young gay men, he is not going to find her an easy nut to crack. However, he is hoping that the single malt whiskey he has brought will help get Claudia to open up to him. As the two of them talk, and drink Jonah’s whiskey, they discuss the past, the present, the future and their joint love of New York.
I have to admit I had a few problems with the writing on The Unbuilt City. To my mind, the show went on slightly too long and seems to flag a little in the middle. However, it picks up speed again and the final moments had me breaking into a big smile as the story wound up to a rather nicer conclusion than I was expecting. There are nice moments in the interchange between the two characters, especially when Claudia takes control of the conversation, bypassing Jonah’s attempts to be the lead, and forcing him to reveal things about himself which he is definitely uncomfortable doing.
Two-handers are a very specialist theatrical style and it can be difficult to pull them off successfully. Luckily, with Sandra and Jonathan, The Unbuilt City is in very safe hands. The two actors work extremely well together and definitely bounce off each other with a wonderful style. The two characters they play are very different from each other and, especially in the case of Claudia, extremely complex people. Claudia’s backstory, for example, is totally at odds with the person she gives to the world and Sandra manages to convey the various aspects of her character. In a couple of rather touching monologues to the audience, she takes us through Claudia’s story from young orphaned girl turned into a philanthropic socialite and finally quiet recluse ending her days alone. Equally, Jonathan demonstrates Jonah’s quiet vulnerability and value structure – where money is a tool for buying time and relationships may happen. Actually, I was surprised how much I identified with Jonah in this respect. My day job enables me to indulge my love of theatre and who knows when or indeed if I will ever find the elusive Mr Right.
Erin Green’s set is very minimal which ensures all the focus is on the actors and their interactions. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to me to have the feel of a run-down American townhouse. However, there is one element of the set which, whilst I can’t tell you what it was – you’ll definitely know it when you see it – actually took my breath away. Director Glen Walford has kept movement to a minimum with the two characters spending a lot of time sat looking at each other and whilst this may not be that exciting, it is a very honest representation of how people are when chatting, particularly when trying to negotiate.
All in all, The Unbuilt City left me feeling that something was missing. Whilst both actors were extremely good in their roles, and Sandra totally made Claudia her own, and I loved the ending, I left the theatre not entirely sure how I felt about them. This was one of those plays where, in the end, whilst I wished them well, I wasn’t that bothered about what happens to the characters next.
Review by Terry Eastham
On a cold afternoon in February, Jonah knocks on the door of a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights. He’s come to ask Claudia to sell her famously secret collection to a university archive. But in order to do that, he’ll have to persuade her to reveal her own enigmatic past, and to illuminate a series of mysteries about the nature of love, legacy and the untold history of New York City.
Sandra Dickinson (I Loved Lucy in the West End) and Jonathan Chambers (Doubt, A Parable, Southwark Playhouse) star in the European premiere of The Unbuilt City by Keith Bunin, directed by Glen Walford, at the King’s Head Theatre from Wednesday 6 – Saturday 30 June.
The Unbuilt City had its world premiere presented by New York Stage And Film Vassar in The Powerhouse Season summer 2015. This European premiere is just the second time the play has been staged.
It is produced by Making Productions and Graffiti Productions.
Making Productions & Graffiti Productions
in association with To The Moon
The Unbuilt City
by Keith Bunin
Wednesday 6 June – Saturday 30 June 2018
Running Time: 85 mins (no interval)
King’s Head Theatre
115, Upper Street
London, N1 1QN