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The Unbuilt City review at King’s Head Theatre, London – ‘earnest and unsubtle’

Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson in The Unbuilt City at King's Head, London. Photo: PND Photography
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Ironically for a play about unrealised potential, The Unbuilt City never really gets off the ground. Written by New York native Keith Bunin, the play is a paean to the interconnected histories of generations of the city’s inhabitants.

It all centres on Sandra Dickinson’s ageing but vivacious dilettante Claudia as she entertains a young university researcher sent to acquire her collection of culturally-significant artefacts, most notably some never-realised plans for an architectural overhaul of the city. While the writing contains both humour and humanity, the plot boils down to two affluent characters yearning for a different kind of privilege than that which they were born into.

Veteran director Glen Walford attempts to combat the show’s sedentary setup with big, gestural deliveries which see Claudia springing about the space, waltzing or simulating masturbation as she spirals into reverie.

It all feels earnest and unsubtle, though both performers work to give their characters depth. Jonathan Chambers is believable as naive academic Jonah, unable to stifle his bubbling enthusiasm for his subject. Dickinson seems less comfortable as Claudia, playing the part for humour wherever she can. Too often though, the dense text feels overburdened by rhythmless, occasionally stalling, declamation.

The straightforward set from Erin Green situates events in a fussy parlour of pink velvet, a gilt picture frame hanging in place of a window. At times, the chatter of distant voices bleeds into the space, filling Claudia’s lonely home with the ghosts of her once lavish life.

Glen Walford: ‘I got Willy Russell to play Shirley Valentine after a bottle of wine’

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Verdict
European premiere of Keith Bunin’s love letter to New York feels flat and uninspired
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