Keith Bunin’s play The Unbuilt City receives its European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre.
Brooklyn. Jonah (Jonathan Chambers) has come to visit Claudia (Sandra Dickinson) one Saturday afternoon to inspect her collection. He hopes to acquire it for the university archive. Yet it is unclear what her collection actually consists of – there has been rumour of an ‘unbuilt city’. Will he find out the truth?
This is a wonderfully moving, funny and thoughtful play, brilliantly brought to life by Jonathan Chambers and Sandra Dickinson, under the direction of Glen Walford.
Jonah has to tread carefully. Most elderly ladies can be persuaded to part with their collections through the means of attention and flattery, but Claudia turns the tables on him. She also wants to find out about his life, so we not only hear about her background as an immigrant, which shaped the person she is today, but also about his story. It is a journey into the past to understand their hopes, dreams and fears and enables the audience to sympathise with them.
It also reveals the humour of everyday life, when, for example, Jonah talks about working in an archive, where boxes are unpacked, and he explains the skill of removing staples without damaging the paper. It’s a joy to hear his passion about archives, which offer journalists and historians unexpected and inspirational finds.
Claudia however has a less idealistic view of archives. She feels sorry for the orphaned pieces being trapped in a dark padlocked room.
The play explores what we do with our lives and whether it actually matters. Claudia came to recognise that while she had no talent for the arts, she did have the talent to recognise art, and so she devoted her life to supporting it. Although she has had a rich life, a hole remains in the form of a companion to share it with, and so she is accompanied by a deep sense of longing. This is something Jonah shares, foregrounded especially when Claudia asks him: ‘Who is waiting for you when you come home?’ Jonah is gay, he doesn’t need to hide in the closet anymore. He has his romantic adventures, but nothing lasts. He devotes himself to the book he would like to write. And if Claudia were to sell the collection, a small percentage would fall to him – enough to buy himself the time to write it. But the question of money brings more twists and turns and their story remains engaging to the very end.
It is refreshing to watch a contemporary yet timeless play with characters you care about, questions that leave you thinking and a performance you are grateful you saw.
The Unbuilt City runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 30 June.
By Sabine Schereck